Monday, October 12, 2009

Writing Life

This weekend was the James River Writers annual Conference; after five years, my best friend and I refer to this as "my" conference (hers comes in November, and is an academic gathering).

In 2004, my brother approached me - neither he nor I are natural joiners, but he has always been more willing to try, to put himself out there; and so, when he wanted to go to some conference, I thought, okay, sure. That first year, the education was so intense and the inspiration was so high, I began to write my novel within less than a month after attending.

In the four years since, I've found JRW generally, and the Conference specifically, to be an incredibly helpful resource, a socially enjoyable way to push outside myself a little bit, and a goose to my motivation every time. My confidence that I can - and WILL - be published is entirely due to JRW, and my understanding of how best to go about that seems almost to actually be getting me somewhere.

2009 was my fifth Conference. By now, I leave all the seminars and discussions involving the words "agent", "editor", and "publish" to what I quite amusingly think of as the newbies, and focus intently on those subjects which just *interest* me. Those with a focus toward selling yourself/your work I feel I got a lot out of during my first couple of years' attendance; they tend to be the biggest mobs, too - so I am happy to delve into more romantic particulars, or into more diverse areas of consideration.

And one thing the Conference did in a big way for 2009 is to diversify its focus. It has always included journalism and nonfiction writing, but this year we had a graphic artist and more poets and writers for youth audiences than I recall in the past as well. The people JRW attracts to participate are just the most stunning group of sophisticated, generous, lovely writers and professionals I can imagine - and the access the Conference provides is beyond belief. And, if this sort of thing matters, the star power is pretty intense as well. Never mind that these people have all been absolutely incredible, supportive, and simply interesting to hear from.

Some years have been better than others for me personally in terms of making contacts for my own work (historical fiction). But two years ago, I did get a bite on the work I have in the chute for after I complete my first novel.

This year, though, was the big one. I got a bite on my nearly-completed draft of "The Axe and the Vase" ... and a request for three chapters.

When one of the organizers' eyes widened, and he grinned and said, "She is tough!" ... well, if I hadn't already felt pretty d*mned good about not only getting in front of her, but getting somewhere *with* her, I certainly got bumped up a notch with that. Which was the intention, of course; did I mention the generosity of the real working writers, for us wannabes, at JRW ... ?

I told her I was within six months of having a presentable draft. I'm hoping I can make it more like three.

The oddest thing about this is, I paid a good deal of attention, in signing up for this agent meeting, to who the agents were, what this particular agent's focus areas are, and to corresponding what I have to sell with what she'd *like* to sell. Her interests appeared to me to align to my work better than anyone who has attended the Conference in the past; I was excited to see someone mentioning historical fiction at all, but she also notes a preference for ground not already covered, and her agency does foreign rights as well; something I think is almost necessary for A&V.

As she mentioned Victoria Holt on her site, I opened with the explanation of my interest in histfic, which began with the chronic thieving of my mom's books when I was a kid. I cadged "My Enemy the Queen" and "House of a Thousand Lanterns", "Mary, Queen of Scots" and one about Marie Antoinette. I still have a few of these even to this day; eagerly thumbed, loved till their covers fell off and disappeared in the mid-eighties; inspiring and interesting and like crack for my youngish brainmeats. Mom's reading habits early informed mine - and I am so grateful!

So the agent and I waxed mutually enthused over Victoria/Jean Plaidy, and Norah Lofts (I just lent "The King's Pleasure" to a friend last week!), and I told her, well, one of the things you mention on your site, that you like a niche that covers new ground, is what got me off the Tudors and Plantagenets, and made the story I've come to so unique. I high-pointed my subject - a king of France, an early Catholic - and noted Oprah's November 2007 featuring of "Pillars of the Earth", which she also seemed to like. She asked me what I would work on next, and I had an answer; the female novel, to complement this first so-very-male one. She asked me whether I thought women would read such a male-oriented book, and I said the very fact that a woman chose such a subject should at least create some interest (I didn't highlight enough - but my query, when I send it, will - that the enduring relationship between my subject and his wife is a core thread of the book, and a fascinating one), and I was able also to touch on the many kinds of audience this story would appeal to - Roman, barbarian, and theological history buffs, Francophiles, those who've had the Tudors up to here ...

In short, I hit the buttons - I proved I'd paid some attention to whom I was speaking with in the first place (surprisingly, this doesn't appear to be habit for some writers), I spoke to her own specified points of interest ("the European rights are a strong possibility here"), I had a response to the "surprise" - yes, but what else have you got - question, and I expressed myself pretty well. I think confidence in a pitch is probably as important as it is in a job interview, and I certainly had that; she didn't have me nervous at all (and I was even able to display a bit of generosity, switching time slots with another Conference attendee, when they thought they couldn't find me and led the next person up to the agent).

And so, it was strange, when I got to the end of this winning and enjoyable conversation - and the agent smiled, said "that sounds great! I'm sold" and slid her card across the table at me, asking for three chapters when I am ready to present the whole manuscript.

I hadn't anticipated either success or failure; I realize, somewhat conceitedly, that I rather considered the things I had to say such a slam dunk that of course this must be the necessary outcome. So it is funny that the simultaneous response I had to "well, it is to be expected" she'd want to see my work itself, was "holy smokes, I can't believe this!"

My confidence in the work is complete. I've never doubted since starting it that it would sell.

What I didn't think about so much was how that process might be eased. One looks (if one is smart) at other books of similar nature. One thinks, "Harper Collins published Bernard Cornwell's gritty Arthurian series; my work would fit with that." One works out marketing points and a query letter, and thinks seriously (but not WHILE writing) about how to create an audience; who that audience might be.

The thing is, on the possibility that I could get an agent I would be so deliriously happy to have for my work (this is a pretty well informed interest on my part, too; not merely the desire for "an agent, any agent!") ... if it happened that I actually sent in my chapters, followed by the manuscript, and got an agent out of this process - the impossibility of how fortunate a piece of work that would be, and the incredible time-savings and work-savings it would represent, is a genuinely astonishing consideration.

I've got a foot in a door here, and that alone is an extremely large asset. It's not easy to get in front of an agent, never mind get that agent to pay attention to you. They WANT to say yes, to be sure.

But consider this - the job of an agent, no matter how much they want to find new authors to represent, is to say no. Constantly. Every single day. More than not. And that "more than not" is probably a factor of several hundred (at least) "no's" to one single "I'm interested."

I haven't sent a query letter here; I haven't sent out a dozen. I spoke directly with this woman, and sounded a chord. "That's great! I'm hooked." She *asked* me for chapters. It's up to me only to make them yes-able, as it were. She's open to me already; more than many authors can hope for in a day.

I have the chance here to get the door opened the rest of the way. This is an enormous opportunity, and possible advantage. I am grateful and vindicated and excited and happily blown-away.

I have worked for four years, almost exactly, on 385 pages of a historical novel on a subject not covered before in American publishing. I'm sellable. I'm ready.

I need to finish this thing. I kind of can't believe it, and am so thrilled at the same time.

Time to start kicking below the doorknob. And make my way in now.

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