Monday, December 14, 2009

Aftermath of a Conference

Janet blogged in November about her experience at the Surrey International Writers Conference. I’d like to share a little about my experience there.

First of all, for me, the conference was already a success the minute I stepped off the plane in Vancouver and found my friend Muriel waiting for me. We were soon joined by Suse and Janet and it was wonderful to see them again. Since I live some distance away from the other Chicks and Janet is now in Nova Scotia, we don’t see each other as much as I’d like to.

When we reached the hotel we met up with Connie, Helena and new Saskatchewan Romance Writer member Joanne. What a fun reunion/new bonding experience we had!

Before the conference, I blogged about setting goals for this conference and steering away from unrealistic expectations. I decided my goals were to meet and pitch to at least one agent, and to take in as many of the workshops as possible. Back in June when I registered for the conference, we were given the opportunity to book one agent appointment and one blue pencil session. A blue pencil is a “critique”, or at least a bit of an opinion (as much as you can get in 10 minutes) from an industry professional, including authors, editors and agents. I booked my agent pitch with Donald Maass and my blue pencil session with Susan Wiggs. Hey, I figured go big or go home!

I was a bundle of nerves as I waited for my pitch appointment with Donald Maass. It was scheduled for just before lunch on Friday morning, and I think Mr. Maass had been handling pitch appointments most of the morning. I was his last scheduled appointment before lunch and I wondered if that meant he’d want to get through my appointment as quickly as possible, but I was soon proved wrong. Before I sat down he produced a granola bar and apologetically said he just had to eat something. I said that was fine with me. He ate his granola bar while I read him my pitch for my World War Two time travel romance. He asked questions about the story, and also asked if this was my first book. I was able to hand him my business card and point to the back where I had printed the names of my published books (thank you Janet for recommending I do that). At least I could prove that I had what it took to finish a book, several books in fact. I wish I’d also emphasized that I knew how to work with an editor, having gone through the experience four times now, and I also realize how much promotion an author has to do on her own.

In the end we probably spoke for at least 15 minutes. I was able to ask him questions I had been thinking about; should I write a sequel to my romantic suspense and remarket both of them? He thought I should start fresh with a new piece, and he liked my idea for my World War Two story. He gave me his card and told me to send him the first 50 pages when I was ready and the book was polished, even if it took a couple of years.

The next day I met with Susan Wiggs for my blue pencil session. I was far less nervous for this appointment and was just looking forward to meeting Ms. Wiggs. I showed her the first three pages of my contemporary “Welcome to Paradise” and she asked a lot of questions about the plot and characters. She told me she liked the idea and that I had all the necessary elements for a sustainable conflict. It was gratifying to hear that from someone with as much experience and stature as Ms. Wiggs. She also offered some advice about moving the setting from Canada to the USA (easier for readers in the US to relate to). As I was leaving, I asked her which publisher she thought might be interested in this story. She immediately said, “You’ll need an agent” and whipping out her business card, she wrote the name of an agent from the agency she uses, saying this young woman was “brilliant”. I was almost as excited to get this business card as I was to receive Mr. Maass’ the previous day. Ms. Wiggs did not owe me anything, and I think she was extremely generous to offer the name of an agent to me.

The workshops were first rate, and I found the hardest part was deciding which one to take since there were several offered in each time period. One of the most intriguing workshops I attended was called “SIWC Idol”. Author Jack Whyte (he with the deep baritone Scottish accent) read the opening lines of manuscripts submitted by brave members of the audience, while a panel of agents listened. When two agents put up their hands Mr. Whyte stopped reading. It was meant to simulate the moment an agent might stop reading an author’s manuscript in her office, having lost interest in the piece. The agents gave a brief reaction to the manuscript and the reasons they put up their hands. Their reasons varied: carrying a joke too far, too much backstory and not getting on with the action, some detail not ringing true. Mr. Whyte did not get a chance to read very far into most stories. I believe there was only one manuscript that an agent expressed interest in and asked the writer to speak with her later. The workshop was a real eye opener.

All in all it was a great experience. I met my goals. I found the other authors friendly, and agents and editors generous. Now all I have to is to finish and polish both of my WIPs!

So, my question is this: which WIP should I concentrate on finishing and polishing first? “Welcome to Paradise” is further along, although I love the idea of my World War Two story. What do you do when you have two leads on agents for entirely different stories?


Janet said...

I'm so glad you blogged about your experience in Surrey, Jana. Brings it all back - the excitement, the learning, the laughter!

You're sessions went very well - and you were very focused as to what you wanted out of the conference. I think your advice to all of us before the conference to decide what it was we wanted to get from the experience really helped to focus our questions and expectations. It obviously made for a very successful conference for you!

My advice now, to you, is to work on both. I know, who has time to do that - but Paradise is in revision/rewrite stage and your WWII story is still in creative stage. But my advice ends there - because I'm trying to take my own advice and channel Nora Roberts' when I sit in my office chair.

Here's my thoughts (even if you didn't ask) - find the time of day you're most creative, when the Muse is bright and perky, then carve out some time then to work on the WWII story. Then, when you're most analytical, work on Paradise. I can hear you now - "Who has that much time?". I'm saying the same thing to myself - but even an hour a day for each manuscript gets you closer to being finished.

Now, if I could only take my own advice.

I think you have a wonderful opportunity - two agents, two manuscripts. Query both when ready.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
Surrey was so much fun! I hope we have a chance to do another conference sometime soon.

I'm having trouble finding time/concentrating on my WIPs lately. It's making me think once more about ditching the day job entirely to write full time. But until then I have to find a way to make this work. Your idea about the creative time and the analytical time is very interesting. I definitely am more creative in the mornings. That's my best time for working on a new project in the creative stage. I can usually do editing at other times of the day, although at this stage of "Welcome to Paradise" I have to think about the story as a whole to make it as strong and as interesting as possible. That takes some creative thinking.

My biggest problem seems to be that I even when I do have some time to write on my WIPs I don't use it because I always feel I have to have a big block of time to write, which has been as scarce as hen's teeth lately. Several months ago Anita blogged about writing "chunks" of time and how some writers were able to use even small chunks of time to get some writing in. I just haven't been able to use that method myself. Anyone know how you retrain yourself to go from a big chunk writer to a small chunk writer?

Thanks for your advice Janet. It really makes sense. Now all I have to do is take it!


Helena said...

Nice summary of the conference experience, Jana. We are all apparently feeding on what we learned. I am constantly referring to advice, or workshop content from SiWC, when I talk about writing with my writer friends. Makes them envious, but I really got so much out of those few intense days that I can't help it.

Of course, you were given some specific leads. I'm happy to say that I got one, too. ("When it's ready, send me a synopsis and the first three chapters.") Wow, if those aren't magic words ...

In the next breath, the editor I was talking to said, "Even if it's a year from now." I think that's significant, because they don't want to see a rushed effort. So, if your time is at a premium, maybe you have to make a choice. And since you like big blocks of time, you might wish to temporarily focus on one of them exclusively for a few months, and then switch gears to the other one.

I agree that the editing process is also a very creative activity, maybe even more so than the initial dump of a story in its first draft. That's when you really mould it into its final form. (I'm assuming that you know your plot when you're writing that first rough draft, so the story is already made up, so to speak.)

Glad you are keeping the benefits of the conference in front of us. Something to look forward to again, or something like it!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Yes,I got a lot out of the conference and I'm very glad I attended.

There are no sweeter words to a writer's ear than an agent telling her to send in three chapters (unless of course it's the agent telling her she's the best writer since Shakespeare.) Like your editor, Donald Maass also told me to send the first 50 pages when it was ready, even if it took up to 2 years. I guess agents and editors would rather see something polished in a year or two, than to read something right away that just isn't ready.

I swear I am going to get back to work on my WIPs, starting after Christmas. I've got a bit of break during the holidays so it will be a great way to start my new year.


connie said...

Hi Jana,
One of my favourite memories is of talking to you at the airport as I waited for my cousin.
I agree - wait till after Xmas.
When I wrote my NF book, I took a year's leave of absence. Can you do that? You are so far along in your writing career (Donald Maass says send it to me WOW - you're in the big leagues!)
The question is, do you want to take the plunge and be a full time writer? You can always get another day job if it turns out you are not comfortable.
Close your eyes and think quickly -which story do you feel like tackling? Another way is (don't laugh, this works) give one story 'heads' and the other 'tails'. Flip the quarter and you will know, before it lands, which way you want it to land
Can you divide the work to be done into chunks and do them in the order they need to be in? Or, do having deadlines help?
Personally, I would use the quarter trick, list what all has to be done, set priorities and go to work on the winning wip (the one I found out I wanted most). When I needed a break, I would set aside x number of days to work on the other one.
Janet's idea of times for creative and time for creativity and analysis is right on.
Big chunk of time? What is that? One of the workshop leaders said to make writing your job. At certain times of the day, that is what you do - write - come hell or high water.
I also know you are already a successful writer. Now you are on track to be an even BIGGER success.
I'll be rooting for you all the way!

Karyn Good said...

So glad you had a great experience at conference, Jana, and I guess if you have to have a dilemna, it's good its a choice between two agent requests!

Good luck with your decision. I wish I had some stellar advice to offer besides 'go with your gut' but sadly I don't :)

I guess I'm a small chunk writer. I work on a scene at time, three chapters at a time. Once one is done I add another. I don't know, it works for me.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Sorry I'm late in the city...

Thank you Jana for letting us know your experiences in Surrey.

As for which one first though was whichever is farthest ahead. But maybe the answer should be whichever one you're fired up about at the moment because when you're rarin' to go, you should really get going and it'll catch up before long.

Good luck with finding a home for your ms and landing an agent. You're on your way.