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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,

Rick

 


 

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.

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