I had a full schedule at the fall writer’s conference November 2 to 4. The keynote address by Randall Kenan and panel discussions over breakfast were filled with inspirational quotes and points I connected with, like “Writing is a path to discovery,” “A book is never finished; it’s abandoned,” and “I carry the landscape [of home] in my subconscious.” It only got better from there!
I had signed up for the Manuscript Mart, where I’d sit with an agent to receive feedback on how she reacted to the first 15 pages of my novel. I had been practicing a pitch, just in case I was expected to give it. And, my first session was “The Perfect Pitch” with Kim Boykin, Erika Marks, and Kim Wright.
The teachers explained that I should have a two-sentence pitch to use when I meet an agent on the fly and only have ten seconds to catch their attention. Then there is an expanded pitch for when the agent asks to hear more. The expanded pitch is similar to the back cover copy—trying to intrigue the agent to want more. You might include basic information at the end (word count, genre, a very brief bio).
They described the reactions I might get: “I’m interested,” “It’s not for me,” or a referral to another agent. At a pitching event, where you’ve paid to have time with agents, you can fill extra time after a pitch with questions: “What are editors looking for?” “Is my idea marketable?” “What turned you off?” “What did you find most compelling?”
Then everyone in the room practiced our pitches and received feedback: don’t begin with “My book is about…,” be clear and use short sentences, put the hook first, indicate the book’s genre with the language you use, and more.
A panel of agents provided more tips on pitching:
- Follow all guidelines and be sure the agent is looking for the book you are pitching
- Be a person, but also be professional
- Make it clear that you read in the genre you are pitching by providing good comp titles (not outliers, movie books, or classics)
- Include what makes your story unique
- Don’t talk more about yourself than about your project
- An author should have a website; otherwise, as far as author platform, an author should go where they are comfortable; some agents will help an author develop their platform
Talking to an Agent
It turned out, I didn’t have to pitch the agent. She’d marked up my manuscript (The Knowledge Game) and went through it with me, giving her reactions. It was enlightening, and I have six pages of notes to sort through. So on the plus side, I know what I need to work on. On the down side, I really thought I was almost done! Each time there is a new stage of revisions, I see more of how much work goes into a novel, how it doesn’t just flow out ready-to-go, at least not for a beginner. I decided I would finish NaNoWriMo and revising Rose Fair with the end of 2018, and then turn back to The Knowledge Game in 2019.
I also learned that the new-adult genre is no longer a thing—no longer used in the industry. It was absorbed into romance. I had been struggling to figure out what qualified as new-adult (see blog post here) and where my books fit in, so the agent’s disclosure made sense to me. The Knowledge Game is simply an [adult] science fiction thriller.
The whole experience got me thinking about the dilemma of how much to change to fit in with what sells, versus writing the novel you want to write. I wrote a whole post about this (here), but then kept thinking on it. James, a sci-fi writer who leads my book club, used to have a publisher but moved to self-publishing when the publisher refused his new ideas. He’s successful, but had already built a fan base when he made the switch. It seems to me that whichever route I take, I should work on finding my readers.
The Writing Craft
I participated in three sessions about the craft of writing. Here are some takeaways.
Scene Sequencing in Novel Structure, with Kim Wright: I’ve read a few books on the structure of novels and have conflicted feelings about the concept. On one hand, I don’t believe that a novel must follow of specific structure to be good. On the other hand, if a structure works for readers, it will help them like the book (and make it commercially successful). And, as a beginner, following a proven structure might help my novel. Here were some other ideas:
- If you’re a pantser, you can spew out a first draft and THEN apply a structure to it
- The opening is about 15% of the novel and creates the world, introduces the characters, and hints at the theme
- A catalyst propels the protagonist into the main body of the novel
- Pivot points (like the catalyst) should be well-spaced, like ornaments on a Christmas tree
- The opening and finale are the easy parts to write; the middle is where it is easy to mess up
- The middle has three aspects: (1) the plot, a sequence of scenes that builds to a climax, (2) the character arc, the growth of the protagonist, and (3) the story arcs of other characters, woven in.
- There is a mix of quiet scenes and climatic ones, and of summary versus detailed scenes; new writers often have too many scenes
- Fewer characters is usually better; all named characters should be developed
- Geology affects where people settle—along a river, for example; think about how this happens in the real world
- Be realistic: for example, horses are expensive to own, so in a town of poor farmers, not everyone would own a horse
- History matters—even in a time of peace, a history of war affects your characters’ views
- If you make up a world, make up the religion of the world; don’t use “Presbyterians in space”
- Cultural references will date your book if they are obscure; some (like Batman or Star Wars) are established enough to last over time
Gail pointed out that in the research to find correct information, you often find interesting nuggets you can use in your story. With museum collections now digitized, it’s possible to find anything online.
This session made me realize how much I’m aided by the experiences I’ve had: I have friends who are farmers. I eat what’s in season, and my mom preserved food. I’ve learned bits about traditional crafts like weaving and blacksmithing in my time at the Folk School. I read nonfiction. World-building involves understanding the bottom layers, the things we often overlook in our real lives.
Creating Diverse Characters, with Paula Martinac: I’ve been reading Writing the Other, but Paula’s session brought a new perspective on writing characters with different traits than my own. (She also recommended Writing the Other, however.) She pointed out that writing diverse characters is part of the basic process of characterization (i.e., writing good characters). She also talked about the “own voices” concept and writers’ intent when including diverse characters: Is it because you think you should? Does the character have a role in the plot? Is the character a prop for your main character? Or do you simply want to portray the world accurately?
True diversity is inclusive and authentic. Research does not mean following one person (with a certain trait) on Instagram and using them as your character. Paula described the efforts made by writers who have successfully written books with a main character with traits different from their own: interviews, reading memoirs, finding news articles written by members of the relevant community. Paula also talked about the line between being an ally and appropriating.
Paula listed eight methods of characterization in general, which helped me as someone who’s never thought much about characterization at all: appearance, accessories, dialogue, thoughts, actions, personal history, what others say about the character, and what the narrator says about the character. Writers often focus on appearance and accessories; we can get to know characters by pretending to interview them, for example by using the “Proust questionnaire.” Remember that diverse characters should be real and complex, with flaws.
A Performance of Native
At the banquet Saturday night, we had the good fortune to watch an abridged version of a play called Native, by Ian Finley. The Paul Green Foundation commissioned the play, which explores the relationship between Paul Green and Richard Wright as they work together on a stage adaptation of Wright’s book Native Son. Most of the dialogue was taken from historical documents and was the men’s own words. (Documents from Green were plentiful, but for Wright, Finley’s main lead was that Wright had written an unpublished New York Times piece on the partnership. Finley mentioned the piece to his mother, and two weeks later she had tracked it down.)
Green and Wright disagreed on the ending of the play. Wright wanted it to match the book: he wanted to show Bigger Thomas as a violent monster, the result of a racist American society. Green didn’t think the (white) American public would take away this message; he wanted to humanize Bigger Thomas. Green gave in, but the disagreement ultimately ended the men’s friendship, which Green came to regret.
In the panel discussion after the play, poet Jaki Shelton Green made an insightful comment: Green is depicted as a hero for risking his life to stop a lynch mob from attacking Wright when Wright visited Chapel Hill, NC, but in truth, Green never should have brought Wright to Chapel Hill, where his life would be in danger. Green’s pride (at being a white man associating with a black man) drove him to invite Wright, without considering what was best for Wright. I was glad to gain this perspective, which had not occurred to me.
One comment at the conference meant a great deal to me. When I self-published Somewhere and Nowhere, my memoir of my bicycle trip across America, I knew it probably wouldn’t sell well. But I already felt like it had succeeded, because I learned so much writing it. Since it came out, however, I’ve struggled not to feel like it is failing because of slow sales, and wished I’d done some things differently. It’s been hard to feel confident.
At the agent panel, Lynn York, publisher at Blair, commented on memoir. Memoirs are the toughest books to sell, because there is so much competition from celebrity authors. Lynn said that the process of writing the memoir and sharing it with your community is valuable, whether the memoir is a commercial success or not. A memoir is a record of a time, a place, and people. Hearing this made me feel better.
On the train ride home, I sat with two new friends and wrote another chapter of my NaNoWriMo novel. (Hotels and trains, it turns out, are both great places to get writing done.) I’m inspired for more writing through December and into 2019!