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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Epiphanies at the Michigan Writing Workshop

On September 12th, I went to the Michigan Writing Workshop in Livonia hosted by Chuck Sambuchino. I'm not going to go into the lessons that he taught us from 9:30-5 pm (yes, he talked almost the whole time. He's amazing.) I'm gonna touch more on the aha moments I had, and there were two pretty big ones. All I can say is, thank god I attended.

Aha #1: Agent = Helper, not God of Fortune

To say I was freaking out before this conference is an understatement. I was pitching my novel to agents face to face for the first time ever, and I wasn't feeling too confident.

I've been querying agents off and on since 2013, so you can imagine how many "no's" that equals. I believe in this project fiercely. You would have to tear it out of my cold, dead hands if you wanted me to just toss it. But it's an indistinct genre for an indistinct audience, and it's hella long. I have at least ten revisions saved on my computer. I hired an editor. I changed my query every few agents. I watched my friends get new jobs and move and get married and have kids, all while I obsessed over this thing. I've often wondered if everyone I know pities me, if they scrunch up their noses and whisper, "Oh, bless her heart. Maybe soon she'll grow up and put her energy somewhere more productive." Any aspiring novelist knows EXACTLY what I'm talking about, I'm sure.

So it's easy to mistake the agent as the one who's going to give you validation, who's going to tell you it's all been worth it, that your work is amazing and that you matter as a person. But that's like expecting a labrador to be a panther. It's just not what they are. (I know, that's a terrible metaphor. I'm Sorry.)

Both agents I talked to liked the premise. Both agents were terrified of the length. They gave me honest and helpful feedback, both during the face-to-face sessions and one in a follow-up email, and because of that, I can say that I now have a plan. Like a real, actual PLAN. You may not get an agent at a conference, but you will get feedback, and you will have a more clear idea of what your next move should be. I wish I had known that going into the pitch-- I probably would have slept a little easier the night before.

Aha #2: Don't ask yourself if your first page is "good" or "bad." Ask yourself if it's competitive. 

Without a doubt, the most valuable--and suspenseful--part of the conference was Writers' Got Talent, or as I prefer to call it, American Idol for Writers. Chuck read our first pages, and as soon as the agents would stop reading if it were in their slush pile, they raised their hands. Over the hour and fifteen minutes that this was done, I think only three or four people had their first page read the whole way through. Some people only had two of their sentences read before hands were raised. One person's didn't even make it to that second sentence.

It was brutal.

Here's an exaggerated reenactment:

Chuck: (reading) It was a cold and blustery day when Toby died. I had just buttoned up my red coat from Hollister, and I couldn't stop sneezing.

Agent #1: (raises hand) Yeah, I feel like this prose is a bit off. Instead of telling me that she buttoned the coat, show me that she buttoned the coat. Instead of telling me that she sneezed, let me feel the sneeze. I just didn't feel the sneeze as a reader.

Agent #2: Opening with the weather is just really cliché. We see it done way, way too often.

Agent #3: Why should I care about Toby and the fact that he's dead? Why should I care about this main character? Character development needs to be more apparent in this opening, both for the main character and for the dead, rotting corpse that is Toby.

Okay, it wasn't exactly like that, but at the same time, it was. It was your creative writing workshop worst nightmare.

After about three pages, Chuck had heard too many grumbles, and he stopped to address the audience. I told these guys to be tough on you, he said. They're not doing you any favors by being dishonest. True. We stopped our grumbles. Agents are looking for a reason to say no-- they get tons of queries every day.

I very quickly went from praying they would pick my page to praying that they wouldn't. And then they did. I thought my heart was going to beat up out of my throat. Chuck made it about a paragraph in before hands were raised. The agent who spoke was-- I shit you not-- the first agent I ever queried in 2013. I had never heard back from her. "Everything's just kind of in the main character's head," she said. "I skimmed every paragraph, and it's still like that." She was the only one who said anything. I was like, really universe?!

I was very attached to the way I opened my novel. It foreshadowed stuff that was going to happen at the end, and it also tied into how book two ends and how book three begins. (Of course, explaining that rationale to an agent would be the dead giveaway of an amateur.) So then the battle in my head went like this: "I think the beginning is good. If I change it, that's like saying it's not good, and it's also selling out. So I can't change it."

By the end of Writers' Got Talent, it was starting to dawn on me that thinking about things in the subjective terms of "good" and "bad" is the quickest way to block anything that could lead to your next step. Ask yourself instead if that beginning is competitive. Out of all the books someone sifts through during a rainy day at the book store, what's going to make them stop and focus on yours?

One tip that Chuck gave us was to mosey through the aisle at Barns and Noble and just read the first page of books in our genre. So the other day I ordered myself a pumpkin spice latte and did just that. I noticed a trend.

Most first pages have:

1) A first sentence (or two sentences) that sets the tone, and it's almost ALWAYS related to a character.
2) A brief description of setting-- like, no more than a paragraph.
3) Dialogue

I still like my opening, but maybe it's not competitive. I think it's easy when you're a writer to forget that there are a million other people trying to do exactly what you're doing. I think it's easy to read your favorite books or the classics and think that your stuff is just as good, if not better. We forget how big the writing world is and how much amazing stuff is being done. What worked twenty years ago wouldn't be enough ten years ago, and that wouldn't be enough today. It's fiercely competitive out there, which is challenging for people like me who don't have a competitive bone in their body.

I think the biggest lie we tell each other about artistry is that talent is rare. What's even more damaging is if you hear this repeatedly as a kid-- which I did. It makes you think that you're almost entitled to recognition because you have this thing that no one else has. Well the truth, kiddos, is that while you may have a voice that's unique to you, talent is not rare. Talent is everywhere. And you aren't entitled to anything.

Maybe that idea wouldn't end up on a motivational poster, but the sooner we accept it, the sooner we can actually get something done.

A Final Tip: Stay Until the End

Around 3:30 or 4, I was done. I was exhausted. My body was coming down from the stress of the pitches, and my ego was shot from the comparisons it was making all day-- well at least my writing is better than THAT person's! Ugh, that first page was SO much better than mine, etc. etc.-- but the woman next to me said to stay to the end because that's when the good stuff comes, and I'm glad I listened. With all the technical publishing stuff out of the way, Chuck talked about his own experiences and hit some important points, like staying curious and open as a person--that's how connections happen--and not giving away too much in your writing; mystery is your friend. So if you plan on going to a writer's conference, stay until the end, even if you feel like you're about to melt into a puddle on the floor, because the closing might pick you up a bit.

So now, I turn it to you. How have you felt after leaving a writer's conference? Any ah-ha's? If you've never attended one, what's the worst (or best) writing workshop you've ever been in? When and why do you feel resistant to making changes in your writing? I want to know, so please share!

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