Sunday, February 26, 2017


Normally my Fridays are spent in my office grading papers, doing course prep, meeting with students, and doing other generic academic grunt work.

But this week I took a day off--from academic work, at least.

As I mentioned in last week's post, I signed up for the Alabama Writing Workshop. The meeting was Friday, so I rescheduled my office hours and, instead of spending the day on campus, I spent it at a hotel in Birmingham, schmoozing with other writers and meeting industry professionals.

I'm a nervous person in general. My anxiety brain never stops coming up with potential scenarios for disaster--which can be great for writing, but is considerably less great when it comes to trying to make a good first impression. I spent a pretty significant portion of the day reminding myself that the goal was to learn more and if that was all I accomplished that would be a victory. I also spent a pretty significant portion of the day reminding myself that I had to do things like breathe and blink and maybe drink some water. My hands shook when I met new people. I tripped over my words and stuttered.

It was awesome.

As someone who's spent the better part of fifteen years trying to make something of my ambitions to write professionally and to get my stories out into the world, I went in with a solid body of background knowledge. I knew about some of the resources mention (I've actually plugged some of them in different blog posts--I'll go back through and make a full list to post soon). I had done a fair bit of the recommended prep work. But even at that, hearing the professionals name check the resources I've been using was encouraging. I frequently feel--and I imagine other writers in positions similar to mine also feel--like I'm treading water. Now, though, I've got a sense that I'm at least treading the right water.

The seminars were led by agents and editors. They dealt with topic ranging from seeking out representation for work, improving writing, making use of social media, and what happens after a book deal is signed. It was a ton of information, and I took pages of notes (and, thankfully, the speakers provided outlines and resources for their talks, so I should be able to review and find what I inevitably missed). And those were just the talks.

The session that met right after lunch was, to me, one of the most informative. It wasn't so much a talk as it was a review. Attendees were told they could bring copies of their first page (sans names, of course) and the panel of agents would read through them--or parts of them--and give critiques. Essentially, the panel members would indicate when a page lost them, when they'd stop reading. My page didn't get read (and I'm actually glad it didn't since this panel was before my scheduled pitching time), but the issues that were pointed out in the pages that were read gave me some insight into how to improve mine.

It was a fantastic insight into how quickly some of these decisions can get made--how vital a strong first page is. It was also an opportunity to learn where the mileage varied for the specific agents on the panel. When they found something that didn't work, they said why. Sometimes it was an issue with the structure, but sometimes it was more subjective. And when panel members disagreed, they said so and explained why.

To me, though, valuable as all of the sessions were, the best part was meeting in-person for a one-on-one session with an agent.

The one-on-one was an addition to the conference--an extra event with an extra fee, and each instance of the fee got one sit-down with one agent. This was another instance where my background research came in handy--adjunct pay isn't great, so I only had enough funds to sit down with one agent. I reviewed the list, checked their websites and MSWL and Publisher's Marketplace (and availability--I registered last minute, so some slots were sold out). The sit-down was a ten-minute conversation, an opportunity to do a quick elevator pitch of the project and to ask and answer questions.

I spent the whole day nervous, but this is where the butterflies got out of hand. I managed--I made it through my pitch without too much word vomit. My hands (and voice) shook the whole time, but not so much that I couldn't be understood. I lost the thread of what I was saying for a second, but I got back on track, and the conversation didn't seem to suffer for it. The agent that I spoke with really did more than politeness demanded to ease my nerves (seriously, she was the nicest person I talked to through the conference--which made pitching that much more pleasant).

I didn't walk away with an offer of representation or a full manuscript request--I didn't expect to. But I did get an invitation to send a sample of Project 2016. And, after my pitch, she asked about other projects related to Project 2016 (some of the things I said in my pitch, she said, suggested that there were more stories)--which she asked for brief pitches for in my submission packet. There are never any guarantees--she liked the idea of the story, but it's still totally possible that my writing style won't be what she's looking for or that the draft flat-out isn't strong enough. But I am so glad--so glad--that I took the chance to talk to her face to face about the project.

It's the most promising lead that I've got so far, and even if it doesn't work out, I know where the strengths and weaknesses of my pitch are better now than ever before. I've got new tools to use as I keep working.

I won't be able to do many of these conferences--again, adjunct pay leaves a lot to be desired--but if I have the chance to go to another, I think I will. If you've been working on a project and are considering a conference, I hope you go. Worst case scenario, you still win--you still come out with more than you had when you went in.

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