“Pitch” Session, not “Bitch” Session

The Portland Writer’s Workshop provided a venue rarely available to writers–a chance to “pitch” a novel idea to somebody in the business. Normally, you will not query an agent (or publisher) unless the novel is completed–that means revised and polished to be the best you can offer. Completion was not a requirement at this workshop. (Non-fiction is a different world, which I will not discuss here).

Prior to the workshop, writers who were so inclined (and paid a nominal charge) sent a prepared query to Writer’s Digest’s Chuck Sambuchino to critique; I mentioned this a couple weeks ago. Chuck then sent the query back with suggestions to give writers a chance to revise for the all-import “pitch” session with agents (again for a nominal fee).

I told Chuck that his evaluation offered a “valuable destruction” of my query. (You can see the original query and his comments here, the revised version here).

Back to last week’s post: during the Writer’s Got Talent section, writers offered the first page of their novel, which Chuck read out loud so that all attendants could hear. The first page of my fantasy novel, The Returning, did not make it past the opening paragraph before three hands rose into the sky, my stomach sinking. But an interesting thing happened: one of the agent/editors kept reading while the others who had lifted their hands explained why they stopped

Jump to the afternoon: I scheduled two “pitch” sessions with specific agents. The first agent (one who had raised her hand) offered pointers, saying this part is good, this paragraph gives too much information, tighten this, etc., etc. I left the meeting unsettled in that the items revised and clarified following Chuck’s critique were the same things she suggested fixing or deleting entirely.

So there I am: the first page of my novel rejected by three of the six on the panel (in about 15 seconds), and two opposing views on the nature and depth necessary to churn interest in my work. No need to complain, though, as I attended with the sole goal of learning in hopes of growing my craft. Nothing gained from an internal “bitch” session.

The second “pitch” session:

As before, I read the query to the agent/editor, who by-the-way, was the one that had kept reading after my first page was voted down. She commented that the query was strong with a good hook. I smiled and mentioned that the first page was shot down quickly in the Writer’s Got Talent section. She asked to see the first page, and reading it, said, “Oh, I didn’t agree with that.”

She asked to see more of my novel, requesting I send the query and the first 20 pages (explaining that normally she asks to see the first 10) since she had already seen examples of my writing.

Success! I left the Workshop exhilarated and feeling that somebody in the business (a professional agent/editor) saw competency in my writing, whether it be style, voice or whatever, and was again reminded that failure and success are close companions during the writing and publishing process.

As Chuck pointed out, there are four major hurdles for the writer during the publishing process:

  1. An agent/editor reading the entire query.
  2. A request to see a sampling of the novel (anywhere from 5 to 50 pages) gets you past the “slush” pile.
  3. A request to see the entire novel.
  4. A contract offer.

Because of the Writer’s Workshop, I leaped the first hurdle and sent off the query and first 20 pages to the editor of a professional small press. Now I wait, hoping to reach the next step, but even if it does not pan out, the knowledge and confidence I gained through the experience was well worth the price (both economical and emotional).

One of the most important lessons coming out of the Workshop: with 1,100-1,400 agents hawking writer’s novels, some will like any given novel and some will not depending on prejudices, needs, availability, and a host of other factors that are completely out of a writer’s control.

What is within a writer’s control—the imagination, the determination, the perseverance–no one can take away from you, except you.

Now, go write that story …


Next Week: The Particulars (and surprises) from the Writer’s Workshop.


This Week’s Quote:

“Writing a novel is like a newly turned field; full of hope and dreams of harvest.”
Yours Truly.

This Week’s Links:

SFWA — all things in speculative fiction
Agents accepting SF/Fantasy (again, thanks to Chuck Sambuchino)
Lists of All Things About Publishing:
How Stephen King Teaches Writing: an interview




Writers’ Got Talent and other Misnomers

My first writing conference (The Portland Writer’s Workshop) reinforced writing truths I understood, cemented others surmised but where questions remained, illuminated and clarified shadowy areas.Chuck

Lectures by Writer’s Digest’s Chuck Sambuchino included:

  1. Publishing Options Today
  2. Everything You need to Know about Agents, Queries and Pitching
  3. Writers’ Got Talent
  4. How to Market Yourself and Your Books: Author Platform and Social Media Explained
  5. How to Get Published: 10 Professional Practices That You Need to Know NOW to Find Success as a Writer.

Like most writers, I have not had direct contact with agents (this being my first conference), which made their viewpoints the highlight of the day’s activities. Their unique experience culminated in the attending agents/editors expressing their views on what stopped them reading a submission. The conclusion: it depends, but certain constants exist.

During the Writer’s Got Talent section, 6 agents/editors were handed the first page of a participant’s novel; no name, just genre listed. While Chuck Sambuchino read the prose, the agents followed along, raising their hand to indicate when they would stop reading should the piece appear in the “slush” pile; at three raised hands, Chuck ceased reading and the agents who opted out explained why. Afterward, the agents that did not vote against the work explained what they liked.

Most writing showed skill and competency, but lacked one or more vital ingredients. Many selections were “rejected” because either a character was not apparent or the described character did not “do something” in these first crucial paragraphs. In one case a mystery began with two strong first sentences, then went on to describe breakfast; a science fiction novel numbed the brain with weighty techno jargon; a paranormal romance contained neither aspect in the opening page; a fantasy opening traipsed through an adverbial mine field. Out of 50 or so representations, only 4 ended without three hands going up (imagine thumbs down as with Siskel and Ebert). My own example did not make the cut—more about that next week in “Pitch” Sessions.

The agents came from varied backgrounds and interests. Some dealt with only literary fiction, others handled isolated genres, others represented niche books, others non-fiction and memoirs. Apparent prejudices existed (literary agents frowned each time Chuck started reading a science-fiction piece; genre representatives rolled their eyes during the reading of high-minded prose) and the voting followed the pattern. However, agreement on several topics kept being repeated.

  1. Nothing happened–must be action at the beginning and NO backfill.
  2. The piece did not introduce the character and conflict in the first one or two sentences. The agents often mentioned how they need to know something about the character, at least gender, perhaps satisfied by a name.
  3. Show, Don’t Tell. A stand-by we have all heard: get into the characters head, describe movements and actions that reveal the tension (wringing hands, sweating palms, nervous twitch) rather than using weak sentence construction like, Darryl was tense.
  4. Good writing wins.
  5. Get into the “voice” of the piece/character at the outset.

These 5 items accounted for most the rejections, in the listed order. Often, the agents explained that a certain aspect kept them reading further than normal (say, beautiful language even though nothing happened), but in the end, the action needed–and lacking–caused the raised hand. (Chuck mentioned following the session that the quick votes surprised him, and had not been the case at workshops in other areas).

This reinforced Getting Started about the all-important first sentences, and thus, the first impression on the reader. A word of advice: Grab the reader by the throat–the beginning is not the place for vague meandering.

If you have any writing conference stories, please post them as a comment—always welcomed and appreciated.

Next Week: The “pitch” sessions.

Keep Writing,




This Week’s Quote:

“End with an image and don’t explain.” – Stanley Kunitz

This Weeks Links:

Sorry, did not get to finding links this week; more coming next week.

Shattered Dreams and “Rhino” Skin

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, failure is the path to success, especially for writers who face rejection and failure more than most endeavors. This has, is, and will remain true in the pursuit of publication. Although true, the failure does not hurt any less by knowing this simple fact. The rejection can still shatter dreams and leave them in icy waste — for a period of time, at least. The important thing you need to understand, the thing you need to hold dear, the one item that is your life-rope: keep trying and improvement is inevitable.winter-fantasy-fence-1575958

This week I succeeded three times — by failing.

Two of my stories, “Eyes of Destiny” and a piece of flash fiction “In the Company of Demons” were rejected with polite “does not fit our needs at this time” emails. Okay, fine, moving on to the next prospective publisher for my work, no problem.

The third struck me a bit more pointed, like an arrow through my heart.

In preparation for the Writer’s Workshop in Portland, Oregon, next week, I polished my Agent Query (original viewable here) for my fantasy novel, The Returning, and sent it to be critiqued by Chuck Sambuchino from Writer’s Digest. With hope, I waited for his response. It came. My heart sank reading his critique, my mouth went tacky, and my stomach soured.

In order to differentiate his response within the text, his words were all caps so that they screamed at me: CONFUSING, VAGUE, I DON’T UNDERSTAND . . .

You can read his response here. (Important lessons can be gleaned from failure).

James Scott Bell, author of many fine books on writing as well as thriller action novels, says writers need to don “Rhino skin” when it comes to their writing being rejected.

Following my initial shock and disappointment (lasted about two hours, I guess), I found my Rhino Skin. (Can you believe it? It was in my closet, right next to the windbreaker I haven’t needed since autumn).

I set out to rework the Agent Query (or “pitch” as some call it) to share at the upcoming workshop. Using Chuck’s notes, jaw clenched and facing the next challenge like the at-bat after taking a third strike, I massaged the words, pulled the “confusing” phrases, and sharpened the “vague” into something clearer and more defined.

I think the query is now improved (Thanks, Chuck!). As I have said many times, improvement is the key to success as a writer. You can read my updated Agent Query here. Feel free to comment, and don’t worry, I am wearing my Rhino Skin at all times now to deflect the arrows.

Now, go write some more,


This Week’s Writing Quote:

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov

This Week’s Links:

Portland Writing Workshop — there is still room
The Kill Zone — informative writing info
Writer’s Digest
Good Writing Advice


The Terrifying Synopsis

Last month (January 10th), I wrote about the Agent Query, that which is designed to pique interest in your novel; this week, the Synopsis. Both, along with sample chapters, are normally items an agent will request during the “first meeting.”A Person

The Synopsis, especially, terrifies new writers and experienced writers alike–why?

To answer that question, we have to determine what the Synopsis is, and perhaps, what it is not.

What it is: one or two double-spaced pages (seldom longer) explaining the entire plot of your novel. That alone causes writers to spiral into the white abyss known as “Stunned Writer’s Block” where a war wages–how do I explain 60, 80, even a 100,000 words or more into 250-500 words and still keep the integrity of the story? (I am now in the throes of that war as I attempt to explain my 125,000 fantasy novel, The Returning, in 250 words).

The Synopsis, in its simplest form, comprises the plot of your novel. Within the Synopsis, you will offer a taste of your character’s motivation, their obstacles, and the end. Yes, you must include the end, that bit you have saved during the whole book, building the tension, the part meant to surprise or bring the reader to tears. “Oh, how can I tell the end so soon, before the reader has a chance to enjoy my wonderful prose, the sub-plots, and all the little hints I drop along the way?” Those items are what the Synopsis is not.

The purpose of the Synopsis is to show the agent that you know how to plot, beginning to conclusion, and nothing more. Before we get much further, let’s answer the question, What is the Plot?

The plot is the series of events within the Story-Line that moves the characters from one scene to another, through obstacles and hardships, beginning to end. Within the plot, the reader will become emotionally attached to the characters and their reactions to the difficulties you, the creator, impose, but the plot are not those things: the plot includes the “things” that happen in the over-all story, the road blocks the characters face in their quest to reach their goals.

Example: Man (a lawyer) searches for his birth mother; finds she abandoned him because she was a drug addict; mother now imprisoned for murder; as a lawyer, man sets out to prove his mother’s innocence; someone tries to kill man; man uncovers plot that framed mother; bad people caught, go on trial; man and mother reunited and set out to get acquainted.

With the simple plot above, you can see there will be a number of emotional twists and turns (depending on the character viewpoint), but the “feelings” are best left out–the goal of the Synopsis is the Plot Outline or Story-Arc. Simple as that. The example plot is only a list, a good place to start, but the Synopsis must include sentences, cohesive prose moving the agent through the plot to the end.

This week’s Links have several fine examples of writing a Synopsis–please take a look at them for a deeper, more in-depth view (especially the first link, Writing the Tight Synopsis, which encourages writers to pen the Synopsis before writing the novel and use it as an outline). As always, feel free to comment: problems you may face, how you have overcome those problems, or any other items you might feel readers will benefit from your particular insight.

Best Wishes and keep plotting along,



This Week’s Links: The Synopsis

Writing the Tight Synopsis
Mastering the Dreaded Synopsis
How to Write a Synopsis
Writing a Novel Synopsis

This Weeks Writer Quote:

“Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.” – Lev Grossman