5 Things I Learned at the Willamette Writers Conference

In the pitch practice room. Nerves galore.
In the pitch practice room. Nerves galore.

Last weekend I volunteered at the Willamette Writers Conference. I attended as an author rather than as a writer trying to snag the attention of a literary agent. Off the hook! But man, did I feel the miasma of desperation that hung over the place. I just looked up “miasma” … “a heavy vaporous emanation or atmosphere” and “a contagious power that has an independent life of its own.” Yep. That was about it.

I waded through the miasma into the pitch-practice room, where the vaporous contagion thickened with dreams upon dreams upon dreams colliding into each other as twitchy writers readied themselves to meet their makers literary agents.

What a relief to be on the other side of the pitch-practice table, helping the twitchy-eyed!

What I learned on the other side of the table:

1. Despite the fact that I don’t know much of anything, come to find out that I do. I don’t retain facts. You ask me to talk in bullet points about the three basic elements of a pitch, and my mind will go blank. Yet, when I sat with the amped-up budding authors, I entered into a state of recognition. As they talked, I recognized what felt wrong about their pitches and what felt right. I’d put up a hand, interrupt them, “Right there! That’s your hook! Start with that. The rest is backstory, and the agent won’t care.” I surprised myself. I do know stuff, and I can help people out, and that felt great.

2. Forget Twitter and Facebook, apparently Google+ will endow us with super-duper powers of self-promotion. Yeah, didn’t get this…In fact, my head spun during sessions about nifty topics such as platform-building, tactical social engagement, and advanced keyword searches. The self-proclaimed web warrior guy (he knew his stuff…but oh. my. god) told us that to do it right we needed to spend hours a day online. SO WHEN ARE WE SUPPOSED TO WRITE, BUDDY?

3. So the thing about Google+? We’re supposed to be over there because when we’re using it, our posts automatically rise to the top of Google searches. Something like that anyhow. I think. See Martin Shervington on YouTube for more information. <shrug> I’m still getting the hang of Twitter.

4. Use a book landing page. One of the presenters discussed an experiment he performed. He had an Amazon book page, and he also had a dedicated book page on his website with a link to the Amazon page. He found that when he sent people to his dedicated page (say from Twitter, Facebook, a blog post, or a Facebook ad) rather than directly to the Amazon page, he was twice as likely to sell a copy of his book. Interesting, right? His theory was that Amazon is dedicated to selling anything–it doesn’t care whether it’s a “Dance the Macarena” VHS tape or your book–but your book landing page is you and only you, baby.

I'll remember this next year.
I’ll remember this next year.

5. Last but not least, never leave home without your cajun spices. No one expects five-star food at a conference, but come on, Airport Sheraton, you could have done better than that! The food was–ready for another great word?–inexecrable (“deserving of being cursed”). Evan Lewis, an old-hand in the pitch-practice room (not to mention a fab short story writer) brought his cajun spice with him. Bland, runny scrambled eggs made from an egg-like liquid product? Cajun spice! Vegetables drowning in a suspicious-looking “cream” sauce? Cajun spice!

I had fun. Just that. It’s grand being on the other side of the table–and with KILMOON debut novel postcards too!

Plastic Surgery, Novel Style

Industrious bee...if only revision were as bloodless

I completed the most gruesomely delicious month of manuscript revision. I’d received feedback from an interested agent — the most simple and straightforward, beginner-ish feedback that I’d heard in a loooong time. Little did I know that I needed to hear it.

The agent said, I felt the manuscript slowed in the two chapters before the murder and got muddled. I also felt like I lost the voice a little bit, which was so strong in the earlier parts…I think if a scene or dialogue doesn’t serve to move the story forward, you should cut.

I read the two specified chapters while attempting to inhabit her point of view. Which is to say, with pure objectivity. Lo and behold, something clicked. A big ol’ whopping, humiliating, painful, Homer-head-slap DOHing, light flashing, baseball-bat wielding CLICK.

I ended up cutting half the text and combining the chapters, the whole time pondering the weirdness of the brain, or maybe my brain. I can’t tell you how many times I’d ransacked the manuscript. But it took a near stranger with an interest in sales potential over all else to inspire a fundamental shift.

With the fundamental shift in place, I cut, sliced and hacked the entire beloved but aggravating thing. In the process of carving away the fat, a couple of muscular plot ideas appeared, lean and mean and there all along. It was like magic, sharp-edged magic, but magic all the same.

Poor thing needs to heal for a week before I pull out my bloody revision implements once again. Maybe all it will need is a punch here and there. That would be good. Bruises heal faster than cuts…

Then we’ll see what wounds the agent has in store for it. Once the plastic surgery starts, does it ever end?

Bark of a Pine

Tree Bark 2In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation…even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.            Great Law of the Iroquois

This morning a dear friend called me. She was concerned because yesterday I’d e-mailed her in angry, ventful fashion. I’m fine today — well, not fine, but okay, rallying, that kind of thing — but yesterday I was  bummed out but forced to set the emotions aside because of  j.o.b. deadlines.

This post isn’t actually about the rejection I received.

This post is about how funny life is sometimes.

The reason I vented in that particular moment was because my friend had sent me an e-mail first. I might not have vented at all, otherwise. In her e-mail she’d written,

Nice, eh?


That’s it. I had no clue what she was referring to, except I noticed the Iroquois quote at the bottom of the message, and having never noticed this quote before, or maybe having noticed but forgotten it so that it was new all over again, I thought she was making a point about the bark of a pine and being a writer.

Seemed logical to me, given my mood.  And apt, the thick-skinned thing, of which I need to grow me some, and what with the perfect timing of the message, reading it right after the rejection…You can see why I replied back in a verbal purge.

Okay, that was that. I went back to work. Then, this morning my friend called partially to check on me, partially to verify: Hadn’t I received a royalty check for my Elizabeth George anthology story? (My friend also wrote a story for the anthology.)


I was so preoccupied, I’d forgotten to fetch the mail! And indeed, the check awaited me. Yesterday, receiving the check might have balanced out my mood. Receiving the check today, I laughed.

Hello, Other Manuscript

snowday3Today, still snowy, and I’m officially back to where I was before November 21st. Writing-wise, I mean. You may remember that during the first half of November I took myself off for a writing retreat to work on a manuscript. I’d planned to send the new project to my agent by the end of November. I was in a good mood, hopeful even.


That was before my agent flew the coop and became Erstwhile Agent (EA). That was before I fell further into a slump because of my dire financial situation (which hasn’t changed, by the way; I’m just used to it now).

Last week I sent Nice Agent (NA), the one who inherited me from EA, the manuscript I’d worked on with EA. I’d spent a few weeks going over said manuscript. Did I mention that I found out EA had no editorial experience? Did I mention that I’d made plenty of changes to said manuscript per EA’s suggestions?

Enough said. I’m happy that NA is willing to read said manuscript. I’m hoping NA likes my writing enough to want to work with me even if nothing can be done with said manuscript because of the rejections it has already racked up.

It’s been a downer three weeks and now I’m staring at the other manuscript, the one from before bummer-dom. I’m not as motivated to revise it, I suppose because part of me wants to wait on a reply from NA regarding said manuscript.

manuscriptHowever, bunk to that. I’m going to work on the other manuscript anyhow. See here? See all these notes I made on the pages while doing the quick-read last month? I’ve got work to do, agent or no!

Like I said, work-wise I’m back to where I was a month ago. Feels surreal, like I lost a chunk of my life. I’ve bobbed back to the surface to continue on like the trooper I am. But not like nothing’s happened, unfortunately. My energy level is definitely at low ebb.

But, just gotta keep working so that’s what I’m going to do. We’ve all been there, right?

I’ve still got that quote up on my wall, the one from Thomas Jefferson about creating luck through hard work.

It Is What It Is

Sunshine picture for a sunnier perspective:


I’ll admit, I’m still unsettled by last week’s setback. My energy’s low. I want to take lots of walks, which is a sure sign that I’m melancholic. It’s not about the agent mishap. Not really. That was a trigger for other thoughts. The bigger thoughts about my life, the writing, what’s going to become of me, and so on. You probably know how that goes — pretty common, I’d guess.

However, one thing about me: I have a knack for stepping outside myself at the same time I’m falling into mini-funks. The detachment doesn’t diminish the funks, only allows me to see them for what they are: transitory.

Can anyone else relate to this?

So, yes, I’m in a mini-funk. I see the funk. I accept the funk. And the funk is what it is. Over the next week or two I’ll probably be doing a lot of thinking (not always beneficial!).


Meanwhile, though distracted and unmotivated, I’m working anyhow. I’m reading through the manuscript that I’d worked on with Erstwhile Agent, trying not to dwell on all the ways the first 25 pages I’d changed per her suggestions (to speed up the beginning) don’t feel right.

Meanwhile, two quotes I’m liking at the moment. I wrote this one out large on several sheets of paper and taped it to the wall beside my bed:

I’m a great believer in luck, and I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it. (Thomas Jefferson)

This quote reminds me to quit with all the thinking already!

Our “original mind” includes everything within itself. It is alwasy rich and sufficient within itself. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything. It is open to everything. (Shunryu Suzuki-roshi)

A Literary Evening Followed by a Realization

What could be better than sleeping in a guest room laden with my hostess’s novels?

Attending said hostess’s book party and then watching the first presidential debate with her and her gang afterwards. (Talk about hitting my pillow that night with a full brain!)

I met Elizabeth Engstrom over the course of four Maui Writers Retreats, but, interestingly, we didn’t become friends until after the fourth retreat. And I can say that: “friend”. Which is cool, because she’s fun, smart, and full of insight about the biz. In fact, over the course of dogwalking and lunching on Saturday, I received many a food for thought regarding literary-agent relations, self-publishing, and possible next steps. I count myself lucky.

One lesson: It’s okay to disagree with our agents. They aren’t always correct. Elizabeth told me a story about a reputable agent who counseled a client that, as a career choice, her latest novel wasn’t the way to go at that time. She disagreed. She sold it on her own and ended up with great reviews.

(And speaking of great reviews, Elizabeth’s latest, The Northwoods Chronicles, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly! It should be a creepy-fun-great read. It’s a novel in linked short stories, which I find doubly intriguing.)

As Elizabeth and I continued talking about agents, I realized that I fear being dumped by mine. As a result, I don’t talk to my agent enough, as if by doing so I’ll come off as too bothersome or assertive or demanding. However, I’m allowed to bounce ideas off her, ask for advice and help, tell her what I really think, disagree with her. Right? Right.

And if she decides she doesn’t want to work with me anymore? I find another agent. Elizabeth bouyed me up with her certitude: I’ll land other agents as necessary. Right? Right.

I’M SAD | My Manuscript Didn’t Find a Home

When I received the message from my agent last night, I knew I wouldn’t be in for good news this morning. She wanted to touch base to let me know where we are with submissions.

Where are we? Nowhere. Thirty seven — count them, three tens and a seven — editor rejections. My agent has come to the end of her efforts with this novel. And I can now add 37 more rejections to the long list I’ve racked up.

This is irrational (what else would I be at this point?), but I feel like I have to start from scratch now, that the past decade’s worth of work meant nothing, that I have to re-think my way of writing novels. Or something. I know this is a lot of baloney, but this is how I feel.

Worse yet, I feel like the past year’s work on the current first draft has been a huge waste of time. I feel like since the editors didn’t vibe with the previous novel (even though they agree that I can write), they won’t like this one either because it’s the same style with similar themes, pacing, and etcetera etcetera etcetera blah blah blah fooey.

Frankly, I’m disappointed by the editors’ short-sightedness. So my novel doesn’t fit all the formulas, so what?

I’ll get up tomorrow; I’ll write; I’ll finish the current first draft even if it feels like a waste of time, because it will bug me if I don’t, and I’m just about done anyhow. Then, I’ll read through a previous novel that’s been sitting around in revised form for years, and I’ll send it to my agent because she’s still my agent, after all, and she’s interested in reading whatever I have to send her.

I like my agent, that much I can say. I’m not pleased with editors at the moment, but I like my agent.

But still…I feel like I’m starting from ground zero and it will be a few days before that bummeriness (not a word, I know, but I don’t care) filters out of my system. Oh, I don’t know. I’m rambling, and I’m not going to edit this post for coherency like I usually do. My manuscript deserves publication, and that’s my final word on the matter, full stop.

Now I’ll have dessert for dinner, watch some asinine show on the telly, and read until as late as I like.

What a Difference a Year Makes

Cleaning out my email Inbox this past weekend, I had occasion to think about where I was one year ago versus where I am now. Specifically, I came upon various San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC) newsletters, and I realized that one year ago I was back in my home territory as an attendee at this conference. I was:

1. Anxious because I was in the midst of a mysteriously debilitating shoulder and neck ailment. MRIs, X-rays, EMGs, orthopedic surgeons, a neurologist, eight months of physical therapy — all with no answer. You could have called me Lisa the Robot because I was ordered not to slouch or bend my head forward at all for six weeks. I wasn’t writing.

2. Anxious about my job because I’d received a writing grant but couldn’t quit until my mysterious ailment corrected itself (July!). I was underperforming because I was too ready to begin my grant time-off. I was secretive with my boss, which made me very uncomfortable.

3. Anxious because I was about to officially begin the onerous task called agent-hunting. Among my writer friends, I know exactly ZERO people who enjoy this necessary but fraught task. I was set to pitch my latest novelistic effort to three participating literary agents. I spent most of my time in a hotel room littered with scribbled-upon index cards trying to perfect my pitch. (Not to mention performing a strict regimen of physical therapy exercises).

Was I anxious at this time last year? Hah!

(I did manage to have some fun. I went dancing at the Starlight Room with writer-buddies Bonnie and Christopher. I caught up with another writer-buddy, Eldon, who had graduated from conference attendee to speaker. Rode the cable car up Nob Hill to the hotel; ate Chinese in Chinatown; browsed inestimable City Lights Books in North Beach. Sigh. I love San Francisco.)

A year later: what do I have to say for myself? I’m not so anxious these days, not even about what will happen to the novel that eventually found its best, talented agent. I’m just writing; this makes me a happy camper compared to last year.

Okay, So I’m an Addict and Other Tidbits

No deep thoughts today, so I’ll get my schizophrenic groove on with an interview…

Mini-me: How you doing?

Me: Wow, great interviewing skills.

Mini-me: Just answer the question.

Me: It took me all day to write four pages, one tortured paragraph at a time, and I’m sick again to boot. My throat’s at it; my lungs are congested; I haven’t been sleeping well; I’m headachy and parched—

Mini-me (whispering in an aside to imagined audience): Get out the violins. (Louder:) Right then, tell me about the scene you wrote today.

Me: It was a lighter scene centered around two clerics and a parishioner who lets his dog defecate on church grounds.

Mini-me: Sounds plain silly to me; I trust you wrote this scene for a reason.

Me: Of course, what do you take me for? The dialogue hides a bigger point. In fact, in my previous posts about dialogue I could have discussed this — that dialogue is best when it functions on more than one level.

Mini-me: Enough with the dialogue blah-blah-blah already, yeesh. If I read between the lines correctly on this blog, you suffered a rough writing patch during the holiday season. The writing is flowing better now, I take it?

Me: Slower than I’d like, as usual, but steady. In fact, this week I broke 200 pages on my first draft. Woohoo! (Momentary break to get coughing under control.) For me, that’s a significant milestone — the halfway mark, the light at the end of the tunnel — you get the picture. I’m already looking forward to revisions. Now, THAT’s fun stuff.

Mini-me (sighing): You don’t get out much, do you?

Me: I’ll walk out right now if you don’t quit with the attitude.

Mini-me: Will not.

Me: Yeah, you’re right. Next question?

Mini-me: In a post earlier this month you mentioned your moratorium on reading novels until your first draft is complete. How’s that going?

Me: Okay, so I’m an addict. I fell off the wagon for about a week because I’d forgotten about my book group, the Sassy Lassies. We convened last Saturday to discuss Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (don’t ask). Long story short, while in the library to fetch the book, I had to peruse the Latest Arrivals shelves…and, well, you know. But I’m back to nonfiction again. However, I’ve decided that I was a little extreme; I’ll now be a weekend fiction warrior until the first draft is complete. 

Mini-me: Good luck on that. Next up, I heard through the grapevine that you spoke to a writer buddy this week—

Me: Wow, news travels fast. J– said something interesting about her current project. Namely, that she realized that she was writing her novel with her agent in mind. Basically, J–‘s creativity went haywire because of thoughts such as: Will her agent like this novel? Will she still want to represent J–? And so on. Luckily, J– found a way to disentangle herself from these external considerations. She’s since restarted the novel and likes this version much better. Our conversation stuck in my head — as you well know — because it was a vicarious learning lesson for me.

Mini-me: And, last but not least, do you have a favorite quote these days?

Me: Funny you should ask, because I do.

       “The secret of happiness is freedom;
           the secret of freedom, courage.”
                                         —  Thucydides     

Hey, How’s Your Novel Doing?

It must be the time of year, because I’m feeling extra annoyed. Just now, the Mysterious Mr. M sent me an email in response to Monday’s post. He empathizes with my rejection agitation because he’s currently in search of a literary agent and received a thanks-but-no-thanks letter from an agent he liked.

In this agent’s rejection letter, she mentioned that editors are running after legal thrillers, zombie detectives, and urban fantasies (which means what exactly?). So, I’m annoyed on his behalf and extra annoyed at the moment because his email got me thinking about a conversation I had earlier this week.

This conversation mimics dozens upon dozens that have come before it, and it goes something like this:

Person I haven’t seen for awhile and don’t know well: “Hey, how’s your novel doing?”

Me: “Uhm, well, I finally landed an agent not too long ago and…”

Person, smile faltering: “Oh, I thought for sure your novel would be published by now.” (Or some variation of this theme with the unsaid thought: How hard could it be?)

Me, in my head: !!$#!%&!!!!

It’s true that hundreds of thousands of books are published each year. What outsiders to the publishing industry don’t understand is that the number of publishing slots available for debut novelists is tiny, in large part because book publishing is like any other big business: going after the surefire money as often as possible. Not huge on risk-taking, those multinational multimedia conglomerates.

Plus, seems like everyone with a computer is writing. Agents are inundated with crap, and even if a talented newcomer makes it out of an agent’s slush pile — not a given — he or she is likely to get rejected anyhow because of market trends. This is Mr. M’s current plight.

I’m one of the lucky ones who made it past slush and into the hands of an agent who believes in my work. And I do mean it when I say “lucky” because, given talent, sometimes it’s only luck that differentiates the published from the unpublished, or the agented from the unagented. (Actually, with some books talent was obviously not a factor, but this is a rant for another time.)

I don’t bother explaining all this to people who ask, “Hey, how’s your novel doing?” Instead, I sometimes want to wonder aloud why in the realm of creative pursuits, it’s considered easier to become a working novelist (by this I mean no day-job needed) than, say, a working painter or a working musician.

Frankly, I think we creatives who are truly going for it must be a crazy bunch. But we gotta do what we gotta do, right?