Secrets of the San Francisco Writers Conference Revealed!

The San Francisco Writers Conference was amazing.

Still life with business cards

Still life with business cards

Truth: Ahead of time, I had convinced myself that the event would be pretty stressful, full of intimidating publishing industry “gatekeepers.” I kept thinking, I just have to get through this. I had gotten myself a little worked up by last Thursday, the day the conference started, and even considered popping a Xanax before the first session. But then I went to hear Brooke Warner, Cynthia Frank, Regina Brooks, and other editors both local and from New York talk about writing and editing non-fiction, how to create a memoir book proposal, who to work with, how to categorize your work, and more. I felt immediately happy I’d trekked up Nob Hill on a hot day with a heavy bag (sans Xanax, for the record). The editors were accessible, the content was good, the format was easy, the hotel was nice—it was an utter treat to be there.

This was my first writers conference, and I’d managed to get in as a presenter in the poetry division. Saturday morning, I moderated a panel on “deadly writing habits” and then presented on a panel about how a day job can support one’s writing. Because my duties were fairly limited, I was able to attend all the sessions I wanted on Friday and Saturday: craft (in the sense of, how-to-write) sessions, meet-the-agents sessions, sessions about how to use Twitter and Facebook and other social media to build a writer’s platform. I filled my notebook to the brim with notes, ideas, contacts, questions. I collected a fistful of business cards. I pitched my memoir to five incredibly kind literary agents (three of whom gave me the green light to query them—yeah!). I had a lovely lunch with a book editor I’ve hired, a woman I felt I could be fast friends with (she’s terrific: if you’re looking for an editor, ping me via the contact page or on Twitter and I’ll connect you. Also check out the eatery Harrow, in downtown San Francisco—yum.) I met, paneled with, and read poetry with a wonderful poet from UC Davis, Andy Jones, and spent a lot of quality time with my writing-mom-walking buddy Aya deLeon (who has great news—check out her blog!). I met writers, editors, agents, publishers, teachers, social media experts, and more.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk at the conference about community. In a panel on building a writer’s platform, Andrea Dunlop from Girl Friday Productions, a Seattle-based editing/publishing/coaching business, talked about how the best way to build your writer’s platform (e.g., your stance as someone people will want to read) is to simply be a part of a writer’s community. That means reading your friends’ books, reviewing them, being in a writing group, hosting a reading series, going to readings, supporting your local bookstore, and tweeting and blogging and Facebooking about all of that. It was enormously comforting to me to hear that something as simple as having a thriving community of writers could do wonders for your work. Because I do have that wonderful community. (You know who you are.) And being at the conference was another exercise in community-building. I’d feared it would be about posturing or one-upping, but instead, it just felt supportive, like gates were opening rather than being held closed.

During the conference, I felt so invigorated, despite the fact that I was up at six on both Friday and Saturday mornings and the days went long (and my dinner Friday night consisted of some cheese and charcuterie and about three glasses of wine, which made Saturday’s wake-up less than awesome). During the week in my normal life, I often feel exhausted by working, writing, parenting, and keeping everything together. It felt promising that while at the conference I felt energized, excited, and possible, and that nice feeling stayed with me through a leisurely Sunday and Monday at home with my boys. Of course, questions were raised as well, particularly about the catch-22 that is “the writing platform”: in order to build one, you have to publish a book; but when you try to publish a book, everyone wants to know whether you already have a platform.

That, and other conundrums, will certainly stay with me over the next few weeks as I dig out from the conference: I have emails to send, tweets to tweet, notes to make sense of, ideas to put into fruition. I’ve got a handful of new connections, was just invited to join a writer’s group, and of course have some queries to send out (and a book or two to write). It’s exciting, thought-provoking, and good, and I’m so glad I went.

Journey to Getting Published Part Four: Course Correct (Or: Learning a Thing or Two from Project Runway)

This post is the fourth in a series. You might be interested in Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. Thanks!

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Boat in Oslo Harbor, Norway

Boats in Oslo Harbor, Norway

I teach writing to art students, who, like me, are concerned with something I nebulously call The Artistic Process (how we make art). In class every semester, we watch Project Runway, the show where fashion designers compete for the chance to win a bunch of dough, a design contract, and other juicy industry contacts. I show them the first-ever episode, “Innovation,” when the designers are asked to make a fancy dress for a night out on the town—out of materials they find at the supermarket.

After we watch, I ask the students to decide who had the best artistic process. This semester, they chose a designer named Daniel, who was confident and focused and above all, stayed the course. He chose materials that were easy to work with: a garbage bag, some tinfoil, and some butcher paper. He had a clear vision, they said, and he always stuck to it, no matter what. That, they said, was good process.

But when I asked them to decide who had the best final design, they chose everyone but Daniel. They chose the guy who’d made the dress out of corn husks, who adapted gracefully when the husks all shriveled up overnight. They chose the woman who made a dress that looked like netting, with a flouncy skirt–she’d planned to tuck crayfish into the nets but decided at the last minute that it would be too stinky. A few of them even chose the guy who’d had a blunt moment of inspiration, wrapped his model up in a shower curtain and sent her down the runway.

So, I asked them, how is it possible that the guy who had the best process ended up with the worst design? Dumb luck, or—was his process not so great after all? After a while, we agreed that maybe the best process is not about (blindly) staying true to your vision, but about being adaptable, being fluid, being open to suggestion—and above all, knowing when it’s time to start over.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot.

Jellyfish.

Jellyfish.

Over the weekend, at a party, I ended up deep in conversation with my friend Greg. The details don’t matter, but suffice it to say that Greg is both a fantastic writer and a psychology student, and he’s one to dig—he gets you to think about things, like, say, your book, deeply. And after he left I spent the rest of the weekend with the nagging sensation that I needed to change something. One voice said, “No! It’s done; stop tinkering. Stay the course.” The other said, “Maybe you should take a risk and try something different.” So I sent my cover letter to Greg, and he and I talked about it yesterday. He had a whole new idea for me, and somehow, in the conversation, I ended up feeling like I understood my book better than I had in years. I understood why this book ever felt worth writing. I understood why it could be a good book. And above all, I understood that I could breathe new life into this whole querying process if I totally rewrote the pitch.

So I took a deep breath and did it.

Now, I’ve always found other people’s suggestions helpful; I’m someone who thrives on advice. But I also get deeply attached to things, and I’m terrible at change, so when I decide to do something different it comes with a predictable feeling of horrible dread and fear, followed, ultimately, by relief; but it’s relief tempered with regret (e.g. “Why did I send out the cover letter with the old pitch to all the GOOD agents? What if they’re all taken by the time I polish up a new letter?”). This sensation isn’t just reserved for writing. I notice when I decide to shift something about my parenting style I go through a period of anxiety that whatever I was doing before was terrible and I’ve probably screwed up L. for life. But that’s no reason to keep blindly sticking to the same course, right? Taking risks is hard, but I’m realizing that probably the best way to do your best work is to know when it’s time to try something different.

So, part four: course correct. Change it up. Take a risk. Be responsive. Write a new pitch.

Oh, in case you’re wondering? Daniel and his butcher-paper-and-garbage-bag dress lost. He was eliminated in that first episode. The delightful Corn-husk man won.

Journey to Getting Published Part One: The Pitch (or, The False Summit)

As you may remember, a few weeks ago I finished writing the memoir I’ve been working on since 2007. The feeling for exactly twelve hours was one of cautious elation. Then I started telling people that I’d reached a “false summit.” Growing up on the East coast, we spent a lot of time in the summer in New Hampshire, where we hiked something called the Baldface Circle Trail. Hiking the Baldfaces is a lot like writing a book, which is to say: beautiful; soul-wrenching; difficult; stressful; at times scary; absolutely worth the work; and most of all, a real slog. You climb steadily up South Baldface through the buggy New England forest until you reach about a half mile of exposed, steep ledges. Incredible views, if you have the stomach for heights and can look up from your fingers gripping the granite for a minute. Then you emerge over the top of the ledges, feeling exhausted and happy, only to realize: false summit. There’s another mile or so to go before you reach the top (and another six or seven miles, over North Baldface, to descend).

The false summit on South Baldface. Thank you, peakery.com

The false summit on South Baldface. Thank you, peakery.com

I’m at the false summit, folks. I did all that work, all that beautiful, soul-searching, difficult work, and now I have to climb the rest of the way up the mountain.

This metaphor is cheesy, I know. But it’s also apt. The top of the mountain, for me, is getting published. Because having done all that work, I can’t just rest here (i.e., let the book sit in a drawer). I have to press on. And I thought I would document, here on this blog, that process.

Part One: The Pitch.

After I finished the book, which is to say, after my to-do list was all crossed off and I’d successfully resisted the urge to tinker with it again and again, I worked for a solid week on my pitch. Depending who you read and how you’re hoping to get published–through an agent? With a small press?–you’ll hear many different things about the pitch. Here’s the basic definition: the pitch is the language you use to describe your book. It needs to be concise. It needs to be attention-getting. It needs to be elegant. Many websites focus on the one-sentence “elevator pitch,” just in case you’re lucky enough to meet an agent in an elevator, I guess. I worked on one of those, because sure, I might need a one-sentence description of my book sometime. It is extremely difficult to condense an 85,000-word book into one sentence. But dammit, I tried.

Then I worked on a one-paragraph pitch. At this stage I found helpful this post, “How to Craft a Winning Book Proposal.” Editor Chuck Sambuchino says of writing a pitch:

  • Introduce the main character(s).
  • Introduce something interesting or what he/she wants (or both).
  • Introduce the inciting incident (that moves the story forward).
  • Introduce the hook (plot)–in other words, say what the story is about or repeat the log line.
  • Explain the stakes, or complications (ex. innocent people die, they get lost).
  • Describe the unclear wrap up.

(Note: I’m not sure why the wrap-up is described as unclear.)

Following this formula, I was able to at least get down on paper all the important elements of my book: main character, me, comes first. Then she meets the other main character. The something interesting: he wants to travel around the world; she realizes she has to go with him in order to keep him. Then the conflict! And then, the sweet wrap-up.

At first, I wrote everything in third person. But some sage advice from another website suggested that memoirists always write their pitches in first person. I found I agreed. Much as I wanted to hide behind a character whose name happened to be the same as my own, I couldn’t: I had to be “I.” So I rewrote. And tinkered some more.

Once I had a one-sentence elevator pitch and a one-paragraph pitch that felt pretty workable, I started to write THE LETTER. I knew agents would want different things, and I knew that I would personalize each letter, but it felt important to me to have a template to work from. That’s when I found Agent Query incredibly helpful. On this page, they tell you how to write a query letter. Here’s their pithy advice:

A query letter is a single page cover letter, introducing you and your book. That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s not a resume. It’s not a rambling saga of your life as an aspiring writer. It’s not a friendly, “Hey, what’s up, buddy. I’m the next John Grisham. Got the next best selling thriller for ya,” kind of letter. And for the love of god, it is NOT more than one-page. Trust us on this.

Agent Query suggests a simple formula: hook, short synopsis, bio, done. I’m not much of a formula person, but on this one, I took their advice. I wrote a hook, I attached it to the pitch/synopsis (fleshing it out a little at this stage, adding some tiny juicy details), and I wrote a one-paragraph bio. I agonized a little over the bio, and ultimately left it quite bare: past publications, including one excerpt from this memoir that was a finalist for a literary award. I did not mention my blogging, my teaching, or my son.

Then I said thank you.

Next time: Researching agents, sending it off, prayer. Stay tuned!