I remember attending my first publishing conference in London, as an author in 2013, and reeling from information overload. It wasn’t only that I needed to process all the information, advice and conflicting feedback, it seemed all my research on the internet about the publishing process was a lot more off the mark than I had realized. My whopping 143,000 word debut YA fantasy novel– that took me six years to finish– needed a ton of work. The word count was the least of my worries.
I thankfully was surrounded by a wonderful support group back in Germany, where I was working and living. Some of the most important questions my friends asked me were:
- Have you taken notes on all the advice you’ve received?
- What is actionable and what isn’t?
- What do you need more information about?
- Who can you ask to get that information?
- Is it possible to take a class to get a better understanding of the main problems with your manuscript?
One of the best things that came from this furious note-taking session with two very seasoned educators: Becky and Russ, was the sage advice: “this isn’t a ‘no’ for your book, it’s just a ‘get better’ opportunity.”
I immediately e-mailed Andrew Wille, who I had my book consultation with, and he very kindly looked at my opening page (again) and suggested I take one of the classes the Writing Workshop (now Jericho Writers) had on offer. I took this amazing self-editing online course with Debi Alper and Emma Darwin. This gave me the opportunity to really hone my understanding of narrative structure as an author. I was also surrounded by a supportive group of authors who have become lifelong friends and allies.
The important thing about that first conference was that I didn’t stop my learning process as an author. I didn’t say, “Oh, I’m an editor and teacher of creative writing, I can just read a book and learn everything I need to know about my own writing process.” That first conference taught me that I needed to get as much industry and professional feedback as I could afford and that I had a lot to learn as an artist about my own process.
Because I’m now an almost decade-long veteran of writing conferences, as both an author and editor, I feel fairly confident giving some hopefully sage advice to those who have either just finished a writing/publishing conference or who are getting ready to enter that busy season!
- If you haven’t yet taken notes or reflected on the experience, take out your notebook from the conference and hand write (not on your phone or computer, unless you suffer from dysgraphia) everything you remember using “The Crappy Memory Technique” which I’m borrowing from Nicola Morgan. Often we get caught up thinking that we have to write everything down in a particular order. Don’t worry about that. Just write what you remember, don’t worry about what you don’t. Doing this writing will trigger a memory down the line, and if it doesn’t, it likely wasn’t something important. (I hope.)
- After you’ve written down everything you remember, highlight or circle what feels actionable and re-write that list on a separate pad of paper (a to-do list or other type of list that you will actually reference).
- Choose only one of those items to focus on for the next week. It needs to be something that you can actually accomplish in the next week (and make sure that you look at your calendar so that you aren’t aiming too high). It might be that you want to contact another writer you met to see if they want to swap sections of manuscripts. Or, it might be to sign-up for a writing class, contact a freelance editor (like myself) that you met at the conference, or perhaps you’re ready to start your first round of queries and need to rearrange and re-prioritize your list of agents after meeting with a few.
- See the conference as a learning process, a jumping off point, not a capstone or end to your writing journey. I’m going to talk about this more below. Continue to carve away at that list and be a part of the literary community by being a good literary citizen. Attend local book launches, buy books from local bookstores, praise books that have moved you, and continue to grow as an artist by either joining a critique group, becoming a good critique partner, or getting professional feedback.
The important thing is that you need at least one good author friend. Your spouse/partner/significant other/best friend/workout buddies are great. They’re beautiful people, I’m sure. However, they don’t know what it’s like to write a book and go through the often harrowing journey of trying to get published. Your author friend; however, knows exactly what that’s like.
THE WRITING CONFERENCE AS A LEARNING PROCESS
Because I’ve sat on the other side of the table: judging writing contests, exhibiting as a freelance editor, talking on panels and moderating, and taught writing for a long time, I hope to instill a great sense of self worth in authors by talking about the learning process that every conference, class or literary consult has to be. I often see authors coming back from a pitch session with a literary agent completely devastated. I can understand why. You’ve worked on this book for anywhere between 1-20 years. You were hoping that this one appointment with this agent would garner you a “yes” to submit your query and hopefully get your baby published and out to the world.
However, literary agents don’t sign authors at conferences. If they said something to the effect of “Yes, send me pages,” they need you to follow the official process of querying them (and following their querying protocol exactly). If you instead received a “no” and they say that the work you’ve pitched to them doesn’t sound like something they can sell, it isn’t a personal affront to you, your work or your dedication to the craft. They simply know what they can pitch to acquiring editors and your work isn’t possible for them to sell. It’s actually good that you know this from a ten minute conversation versus going through the trouble of preparing (which hopefully takes you longer than ten minutes) your materials to send to them only to receive a rejection weeks or months later (or no response at all).
Because this is a learning process it’s important to not get jaded. That’s easier to say than to do. I’ve encountered several authors who are so discouraged that I hear them lambasting the industry (within earshot of industry folks), or appear to be fixated on believing that their publishing dreams are only possible via one very narrow course of action. If you feel yourself feeling this similar dark spiral, I’d suggest allowing yourself a moment to write out the dark feelings, tell them to a trusted friend or fellow author, then go forth and support someone else. Be a part of the solution by helping a struggling author whose book came out during the pandemic, blurb someone’s book who might not be receiving the limelight you think they ought to, and be a beacon of light in the darkness.
ADDITIONAL ADVICE ON UNHELPFUL ATTITUDES AFTER A CONFERENCE
- Saying “I already have a day job, I don’t have time to do x or y.” If you were given good advice by an agent, editor or other industry professional, it’s helpful if you take time to consider this advice, weigh how you can fold this advice into your daily practice as an artist and refine your journey, even if it’s only dedicating a certain amount of days/minutes a week to working on your book/stories. If you want your publishing dream to come true, you will have to make sacrifices.
- Arguing with an industry professional by pointing out places you’ve heard conflicting advice. We already know about the conflicting advice. However, if we’re taking the time to talk to you for free, it’s a safe assumption that we’re giving you the best information we have. Just listen and take notes. You can always disregard what you don’t like later. Just don’t waste that person’s time by arguing with them. It’s rude and it doesn’t allow you to absorb the important information you likely need.
- Believing that because your work wasn’t accepted during a pitch, or didn’t win a contest that it doesn’t have merit. Your book can change so much during a really clear revision process. I know my books change radically from rough draft to final draft. (Hirana’s War is a perfect example. I submitted a very rough third draft to my editor and when it came back from him I had to scrap the first 13-15 chapters, if I’m remembering correctly). I was gutted, but I knew he was right. Following his advice and pushing back the publication date allowed a very different and far more solid book to evolve. The most important thing you could ever do for your work is to invest in it. Whether that’s doing a manuscript swap, joining a critique group, attending a workshop or paying for a professional critique, making some effort is better than burying that manuscript in a drawer.
- Never assume that because you’re a professor, content writer, lawyer, or other type of professional writer that it automatically means you know how to write fiction. Of course, there are some translatable skills, but writing fiction means that you’re crafting a narrative in which you ultimately want the reader to care enough about your main character(s) to go on this journey with them through the entire length of your book. That requires a definite understanding of character intentions, point-of-view, and narrative structure that other domains of writing rarely utilize.
ACTIONS THAT WILL HELP YOU FEEL IN CONTROL AFTER A WRITING CONFERENCE
- Identify if you’re really at a good stage to query literary agents. You need to have at least 3-4 revisions of your manuscript completed and the manuscript’s story structure needs to be very clear, especially its POV! If you don’t feel like you understand story structure, take a class or get a professional critique or writing coaching to help you understand this, if you can.
- If all of the above feels really solid, get going on that query process. Get an impartial reader to look over your whole query package if you can’t afford a pro edit. Make certain that you’re personalizing your queries, following what is required by taking note of each individual literary agent’s requirements. Have a method of tracking what you send where so that you’re aware of who you’ve contacted and what they’ve requested from you, if applicable. If you want a bit more help in this process, you can use some online tools like Query Tracker or Duo Trope.
- Attend workshops by literary agents (at least once a year) where they give sage advice about the querying process. One of my favourite workshops this year was by Howard Yoon.
- Join Jane Friedman’s mailing list. She has Electric Speed (free) and the Hot Sheet (first two issues free, but must pay after that) also. I subscribe to both and her advice and articles are completely invaluable!
- Have regular meetings with authors, at least once a month, if you can. This will keep you current, supported and feeling loved by people who know what it’s like to live this life. It’s a great life, but it can be taxing at times. As Misty Copeland, one of my favourite dancers says, “Be strong, be fearless, be beautiful. Believe that anything is possible when you have the right people there to support you.”
- Have faith that your work will find the right home. If you have a flexible mindset about that home for your work, that will also mean that your chances for publication increase. It isn’t if you get published, but when. Though many less educated still sneer at indie publishing, if you are eager to still be published after querying for 18 months, it is worth pursuing, if you’re clear about your goals and budget for indie publishing. The beautiful thing about the modern age that we live in is that you have options. Embrace those options and be educated about them.
I see a lot of authors walking away from conferences feeling inspired, but sometimes feeling despondent about everything they feel they have to do as a result. It saddens me when anyone walks away truly feeling horrible. I hope that the above are a combination of a balm for the soul and a loving kick in the pants. The most important thing is that I don’t want to undermine how hard this process is. However, it is totally worth it. It’s even more worthwhile because of the amazing friendships and community I’m so blessed to be a part of. I hope you’ll also soon feel the same way!
If you want to continue the conversation, please feel free to get in touch here.