Posts Tagged ‘san miguel de allende writers conference’

How Not to Freak Out and Get Humiliated When Pitching to Agents

February 22, 2014
San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende

I just got back from the writers conference at San Miguel de Allende. The city was voted the number one travel destination in the world by Condé Nast Traveler. And I would rate this writers conference number one in the world as well.

As usual, I took a lot of pitches from writers. As usual, they were pretty nervous when they sat down. And probably some were pretty disappointed when I told them I didn’t want to represent their book.  As usual, a lot of talented people showed me some  good writing, but  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it to a publisher.  Of course, nowadays there are lots of alternatives to mainline commercial publishing. And  writers are exploring these alternatives.

When it comes to rejection, I’m a real wussy. I don’t think I could ever pitch my writing to an agent. I’m amazed at how courageous writers are, and I always feel shame when I know that I have hurt someone with a rejection. In my job, I get  plenty of rejection letters from editors  in response to my submissions. I estimate I have received over 5000 in my few years at this job. Sometimes it seems a little like my social life in high school.  (See my blog post on Publishers’ Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler.)

Many of the pitches at San Miguel were for memoirs and novels. Here’s what I can tell you about  how publishers evaluate these genres. So many of the published memoirs are driven by celebrity. These are,  in reality, book-like glitzy packages, usually written by someone other than the putative author. For those of you who like that kind of book, I refer you to Kardashian Konfidential, St. Martin’s Press (2010), written by God only knows who. For the rest of us, it’s almost impossible to find a publisher for a personal memoir. Certainly there are some examples of family memoirs that have succeeded. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls comes to mind. Or The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr. These books rise to the level of high literature. They’re  the exceptions though, and I can only imagine the difficulty they must have had finding a publisher. I’ve represented some very good memoirs. Yes. As good as The Liar’s Club. I couldn’t get them published. No dishonor. Just disappointment.

Similarly with fiction. And I have written about this as well in a previous blog post. Literary fiction is especially difficult to get published for the simple reason that it rarely sells enough to be a profitable venture. Most editors evaluate 200-500 novels a year. All of them have been heavily vetted by agents. Most of them are good enough to get published. An editor may acquire 10. And the rejection is usually based on marketing, not on aesthetics. (“This book is too dark for book groups.”  —  “This book seems too quiet.”) As a result I only represent a few novels a year. Most of the greatest novelists of our time have experienced these kinds of rejections.

Some agents are nice guys and have a warm and fuzzy vibe. Others may seem dour, forbidding, arrogant, or world weary. If you are fearful of laying yourself  wide open to an agent, here’s what I recommend: Don’t even try to pitch your book. It’s probably more effective  sending an agent a query letter and a sample when they get back to the office. Instead, just ask them some questions. Agents know about the publishing process and the market, and you can learn a lot by having a conversation with them. Ask them what they are looking for when they read a memoir or a novel. Ask them what turns them on and what turns them off.  Ask them for advice about finding the right agent. Try to find out what agents and editors are talking about with each other. Ask them what grabs their attention in the first paragraph. The information will be invaluable. And you won’t have to suffer the indignity of a face-to-face rejection. Of course, ask them at the end if you can send them a query and submission. More than likely they will put it at the top of their queue.

Most writers who attended the conference at San Miguel de Allende, most writers who pitch to agents at any conference, aren’t going to find a home with a big New York publisher. But it’s important to remember that the writing, itself, is the end, not the means. It’s the journey that counts. And a few people  will reach the end and receive the gold cup.  More likely though you will slip on a banana peel ten feet from the finish line. Ah, but what a trip it’s been. How much you must have grown in the process.  Writing is a profound journey of discovery. Publication, well, it’s  a business transaction.

Nobody said it better than Ann Lamott in Bird by Bird. She tells us:

“…publication is not all it’s cracked up to be.  But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.”

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Sometimes I Really Do Discover Writers at Conferences

May 25, 2013
Tawni Waters

Tawni Waters

The first time I met Tawni Waters was  at the  San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference this February. I  was  participating in  the workshop on “voice” given by Dinty Moore. At the end of the class, Dinty asked us to do an exercise, to write a short piece  and read  it to the class. Just before my turn to speak, a woman in back stood up to read what she had written. That was Tawni. It was electrifying and astonishing, particularly given the fact that we only had ten minutes to write it. When I stood up, I was nervous. I’d never given a public reading of my own writing. What made it worse was  having to follow Tawni. I felt as if I was the guy who had to give the speech after Lincoln at Gettysburg.

I returned to Oakland to find Tawni’s manuscript for her literary novel in my email. When I started reading it, I could tell right away that she had talent  — a lot of talent. But for a number of technical reasons, I didn’t think I could sell it. She asked me, almost apologetically, if I would look at another novel that she had written some years before.

When I started reading  Gold Dust, I knew at the end of the first paragraph  this was something  special. As I continued, I became more excited with every page. But I also kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. That usually happens with novels. They sort of peter out after about 50 or 100 pages. But Gold Dust just kept getting better and better, until late at night, when I reached the end, I  was crying like a baby.

When I told Tawni this was an amazing young adult novel and I wanted to represent it, she was excited to find an agent, but she didn’t realize the novel was YA. It’s the story of a teenage girl growing up in a small town in New Mexico, living with a violent and abusive father, and, at the same time,  discovering  she is a lesbian. The town is dominated by a fire and brimstone minister, who is particularly homophobic. The book tells how the heroine, Mara Stonebrook,  finds the courage to triumph over these obstacles.

We sent it out and started getting lots of interest from multiple publishers. Last week we sold it to Simon/Pulse, one of the most successful and prestigious YA imprints. They are thrilled with it. So am I.

Tawni Vee Waters is a writer, actor, college teacher, and gypsy.  In 2010, she won the Grand Prize in the Solas Awards Travel Writing Competition. Her travel essay on San Miguel de Allende was featured in The Best American Travel Writing 2010.  She teaches creative writing at Estrella Mountain College in Phoenix.  Her young adult novel, Gold Dust, is being published by Simon/Pulse in Spring, 2014.

 

At the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference

February 26, 2012

San Miguel de Allende

Last week I went down to the San Miguel de Allende Writers Conference. All I can say is: Wow!

After selling books my whole adult life, I still don’t understand this  one mystery: Why do writers write? I’m fascinated by all writers, from Pulitzer Prize winners to old geezers puttering around with  memoirs of their exploits at The Battle of the Bulge.  In particular  I’m puzzled and amazed at the minds of fiction writers. I can’t imagine   inventing stories. It’s hard enough to lie to Leslie about how I let  the gold fish die while she and Hayley  were visiting  Disneyland for the weekend.  Almost all the novelists I speak with say that the stories keep pouring out of their heads like water from a broken faucet. I think it must have something to do with the subconscious. When I try to understand it, the phrase that keeps coming into my mind is “touched by the muse”.  I don’t even believe in the muse. But I don’t know how else to explain it.

Fascinating and exciting though they may be, most writers conferences – how shall I say this? – aren’t easily monetized. Not to put too fine a point on it, I don’t usually come away with a lot of new clients. But I have to tell you. To paraphrase Mitt Romney, there was some severe talent down in San Miguel de Allende.  I asked  to read  a lot of manuscripts from the writers down there. And I know that some of them are going to end up on the front tables at Book Passage.

A lot of writers conferences have their primary  focus on how to get published. Pitching to the agents is always  the highlight of the conference.  Prior to the pitch sessions, participants go to workshops where they are instructed  with excruciating detail on the nuances of the  perfect pitch.  I would imagine it feels a little  like learning the rules of etiquette at the court of Louis the XIV.   I don’t believe in any of this. I tell the writers that I just want to have a conversation about what they are writing about. I like to think that a bad pitch won’t kill a good project and a good pitch won’t save a bad one.

San Miguel de Allende  was more about writing than learning how to get published and networking with agents.   The agents played a more subordinate role, which was all for the best.   There were only four agents there. We did have the usual agent panel where we tried to explain the ins and outs of getting published. Before the panel started, I introduced myself to the agent sitting to my right, Kathleen Anderson. She’s a very successful agent in New York. I decided to try to impress her by telling her that I sold a book earlier in the day. She responded that she did as well.  Hers was the collected unpublished writings of James Joyce.  Mine wasn’t.   So ended the conversation. It turns out that Kathleen was not your usual snooty New York agent though. We’ll get to that in a few minutes.

Speaking of James Joyce, I spent a lot of time talking to Susan Sutliff  Brown. Susan is a freelance editor – book doctor – ghost writer.  And a very good one too. She’s  also a retired James Joyce scholar. Susan told me entre nous (and I really shouldn’t be repeating this in a blog) that she loves reading junk fiction. I attended her fiction workshop where she attempted to explain  what Joyce, William Faulkner,  and  mystery writer James Lee Burke have in common.  More than you might imagine, according to Susan. She also brought up Scruples  by Judith Krantz. I was doodling on my legal pad, so I wasn’t paying attention at that moment.  Susan might have been saying that Krantz’s first novel had a lot in common with Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, but I might have heard it wrong.

I went to another fiction writing session conducted by C.M. Mayo, an award winning writer living in Mexico City. She talked a lot about first lines in literature. At the end of the class we all attempted to compose a great first line.  A lot of them sounded like bad imitations of Henry James.  I took a different approach. I wrote something about diarrhea at the art opening.  More  Charles Bukowski than Portrait of a Lady. And, like Bukowski, my genius was not understood or appreciated at the time.

I  was off and on engaged in a running conversation/argument with Rikki Ducornet  about  how writers write and how story tellers tell stories.  Rikki has written 8 novels and has won about a zillion literary awards. Right now she is writing a libretto to an opera based on The Gilgamesh Epic. I can’t exactly remember what  we talked about but I do recall  bringing up Nietzsche’s notion of the union of the spirit of Apollo and Dionysus in Greek tragedy. It was as if I was back in my sophomore year at Brandeis.

The highlight of the entire conference  was an over-top-fiesta that conference director Susan Page put on in a huge 18th Century mansion. There was a phalanx of mariachi players. A few of them looked suspiciously like retired Jews from New York. Whatever.  My favorite thing  there was a real burro wearing a straw hat with plastic flowers.

La Cucaracha Bar

At the Fiesta, Kathleen Anderson, Kristen Iversen, Christine Wettlaufer, and I decided it was time to act like real writers and head for the bars. Christine had spent some time in San Miguel de Allende and insisted that we go to La Cucaracha, a bar with certain literary pretensions. It is said that Neal Cassady had his fatal accident on the train tracks outside of town after getting drunk at La Cucaracha. Legend has it that the bar has one of the 10 skankiest ladies’ rooms in the world. We ordered some margaritas there, and looked around at the clientele. Some of them  seemed like they might be over the hill “D” rated  Hollywood actors. There were a lot of TVs around the room. But instead of showing football, they had looping videos of go-go dancers in g-strings.

We decided it was time to move on, so we left and walked along the cobblestone streets to the plaza and found another bar, a little less, how shall we say, picturesque.  This time I ordered  the  true beverage of great writers — a scotch on the rocks. The waitress couldn’t speak English and none of us could really explain what we wanted in Spanish. Finally  I asked for Scotch con helado, which I later  discovered to my dismay meant “scotch and ice cream”.

Kristen Iversen is the director of the MFA program for writing at the University of Memphis. She was one of the keynote speakers at the conference. She was also once the student of Rikki Ducornet. Kristen’s forthcoming book is called Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. 22 publishers bid on it at auction. It’s being published by Crown Books this summer.   Of course, all of us wanted to know how much money Kristen got, but we were too embarrassed to ask. When Kristen went to the bathroom, though, we talked about it a lot. Christine is Kristen’s star student and probably knows how big the advance was, but she wouldn’t tell us except to say that Kristen probably doesn’t have to teach any more. Christine has written a memoir about her 24 years in the military. She’s good and I told her I wanted to represent her, but the book is a finalist for the Bakeless Award. If it wins, it automatically gets published by Graywolf  Press. So there isn’t much help I can give her.  Of course if it loses……

We all went bar hopping again on Saturday night along with some other authors whom I think I would like to sign up as well. We went to Harry’s Bar. It was “Bikini Night”. Anyone coming to the bar in a bikini got in free. They had a 12 foot high bare breasted papier-mâché female figure at the entrance. Somewhere in Kristen’s camera is a picture of me fondling it. She tells me the picture may have gotten lost. I hope she’s right.

I loved that writers conference. It was a lot of fun. I made some good friends. I got to hang out with writers. Life doesn’t get much better than that.