Monday, November 5, 2012

There and back again: a writers' conference

As last week's frantic and sporadic posting indicates, I managed to make it to NYC for the two-day Backspace Agent-Author Seminar. Like so many folks in New York, the conference staff worked hard to keep things running under less-than-ideal circumstances. Around fifty writers attended, and a dozen or so agents managed to appear in person at some point during the event. Most of the agents who couldn't make it called in for their scheduled page critiques, even if it meant dashing to a local Starbucks for phone reception.

The structure was a mix of workshops, agent panels, and page critiques from the agents (both in groups with other writers and one-on-one). Thursday's panels were more or less a catch-all for questions about contacting (and working with) agents as well as what they're looking for. On Friday, they addressed query letters. The panels were engaging, but many of the questions they answered were the kind of thing you can also piece together by reading agent blogs. Still, there's a lot to be said for getting face-time with the agents, even if it's just an opener for your future query letter.

The two workshops were headed by Lane Shefter Bishop of Vast Entertainment and Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Ms. Bishop works primarily in film and television, so her workshop helped us polish our loglines. Many writers dread being asked, "So, what's your book about?" The vague, rambling musings that most of us (myself included) were using as answers explains why. It was no mean feat that Ms. Bishop was able to show us how to turn EVERY one of those terrors into a compelling hook. There was an actual chorus of "ohhhh!" when she worked her magic with one particular women's fiction logline.

Donald Maass led us in a kind of rhetorical question-and-answer session with an eye to developing our characters' inner lives. He gave us ways to round out our characters by developing their motivations, strengths, fears, and inner conflict. He's a natural presenter with a conversational style of speaking. This makes it all the more terrifying when he asks, "In what way are you not the person you'd like to be?" and looks at you as if he expects an answer (he doesn't).

The critique sessions were also a highlight for many of us. On Thursday, they grouped us by genre and had us read our first two pages in front of a jury of our peers and one agent (with another one or two on conference call). This was a lot less terrifying than it sounds, and it was the source of some helpful, specific feedback from the agents. Many of us had also registered for one-on-one agent critiques of our first ten pages.

For folks wondering why it's worth it to pay conference fees when email queries and local writing groups are free, here's the value proposition:

1. You get feedback from agents. Note that there's a big difference between pitch sessions and critique sessions, and I'm talking about the latter. Like most writers, I've sent queries and received form rejections, but no one's ever told me what wasn't working. This is an opportunity to get candid responses.

2. You get face time with agents. Yes, most of us will still conduct most of our writerly business via email, but when you're first trying to get an agent's attention, it helps to distinguish yourself, even if it's with a line about having met at a conference.

3. Agents are more likely to give you a second glance. I actually got a couple of manuscript requests this weekend from the critiquing agents. I've maybe gotten one request for a partial in all my querying. While this doesn't mean that I'll land an agent (most conference attendees don't, even with full requests), it does mean I got my foot in the door. Agents had to read my first few pages, and they had to read closely enough to give feedback. And then they met me in person, and since I brushed my teeth and showed up on time, many of them probably thought that it couldn't hurt to read a few more pages, even if it still means that they'll end up rejecting it after chapter one.

4. You make writing friends. This happens to be #4 on this list, but it could just as easily be #1. The group critiques gave us the chance to appreciate and be appreciated by other writers. Yes, most of us come to these conferences to meet agents, and after the panels we all line up to think of a question to ask Agent X so we can later mention in our queries to Agent X that we met her at a conference. But hopefully you're also talking to the writers sitting next to you and telling writers in your critique group (sincerely) what you loved about their voice, their characters, and their writing. Because these are the people who will read your manuscript cover to cover, who will give you feedback beyond "this isn't a good fit for me," and who will encourage you when the rejections stack up. I have two new critique partners after the conference, and hearing these folks (whose writing I loved) tell me that they wanted to read more of my story, and that they would actually like to hear what I thought about theirs, well, that felt as good as the requests from the agents. 

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