Saturday, November 7, 2009

Between Hope and Despair

Just back from Agent-Author conference in New York, . One minute I'm thinking, yes, they liked it! The next, well, sort of. Maybe.

First up, a panel discussion on "The Wow Factor," and the three elements, Platform, Premise and Voice, that will dazzle your agent-to-be. Platform = you went on Oprah to talk about how you rid your neighborhood of crime via the magic of cats. You're a spinster kindergarten teacher with no friends - but you have 100,000 blog followers. You are a Boston working mother with ten blog followers. This is not a platform.

Premise - Your protagonist is a seventy-year-old criminal defense lawyer facing the challenge of her life - winning the skateboard competition, senior ladies' division, while helping her motherless downstairs neighbor pass the bar exam on his ninth attempt. And Voice - your protaganist's a tough, sardonic, skateboarding grandma with a soft spot for orphans. Voice is my only hope.

Next came the conference's raison d'etre, a session with me and 12 other writers around a table reading our first two pages before two agents. By the end of the day, the floor was littered with corpses, one discovered on the beach, two in the woods, one a ghostly ex-husband, and a corpse with magical powers. I have no corpse. I believe this is a good thing.

My turn to read. Ordinarily, my voice rings out with confidence, but my usual self-possession turned tail for parts unknown. I trembled my way through the opening of my novel, and awaited the goddesses' verdict.

"You have a really strong voice." says Agent L. I knew it.
"But where's this story going?" asks Agent G. "Is Courtney (character on page 1) vital to the action?"
"Um, she disappears after page 2."
"This is all back story, " snorts Agent L. "Weave it in later, and start your book where the story begins."

This occurs at Chapter 3, and therefore, Chapters One and Two must become my corpses. It helps a little that Agent L says it's okay to send her three chapters. It helps a lot when two members of my group approach me to say "You're a very funny writer."

The afternoon's panel focuses on the publishing business, which we all fear is on the verge of extinction. No such thing, the panelist agents tell us, storytelling is part of the human condition.

I learned that self-publishing is a Very Bad Idea unless you have a niche audience. Example: there's a woman who is the world's foremost equine masseuse. She self-published a book about her way with her hands on fetlocks and withers, and has sold 100,000 copies at racetracks. Now, I have a way with my hands on a pair of knitting needles, and I'm kind of famous for my guacamole, but since neither cable-knit sweaters nor avocadoes figure in my novel, I'd better find me a publisher.

At the end of the day, agents were taking pitches. One agreed to look at three chapters with a look that said, "Sure, make some poor sucker happy today." The second, a certified genius who must win a MacArthur, asked shrewd questions about characters and plot points. He was especially taken with my characterization of the book as "really, really funny." Uh oh.

Back to rewrite.


  1. Be wary of writer's bull sessions. Often, their mechanics are so good that the voice - your voice in the story - gets massacred in the process.

    I built my own "Wall Of Shame" as per the publishing sect...I've been rejected by the world's best, I tell ya!

    And yes, the remark,"really, really funny" is less than astute, me thinks, when dealing with this Industry!

    P.S. WHY the need to voice your religious background in your Profile?? Would my Mother call herself a Catholic accountant from Toronto? Kinda sounds quirky, doesn't it? Food for thought...

    Cordially, MsBurb
    Burb's Buck & Buntline Inn (B3)

    2nd Official Tate-LaBianca Murders Blog (TLB2)

  2. No pain, no gain, huh?
    Wish I could have made it down there too.
    Your voice is your gift. All you have to do is get the story right - or get the right story.
    And when you do, here's a great quote to keep in mind: "At the beginning of a novel, a writer needs confidence, but after that, what's required is persistence. These traits sound similar. They aren't. Confidence is what politicians, seducers and currency speculators have, but persistence is a quality found in termites. It's the blind drive to keep on working that persists after confidence breaks down."
    — Walter Kirn

  3. Jeff, Wish you could've been there; it was totally worthwhile. Love the quote(and Walter Kirn). Thanks.

  4. That's frightening and exciting all at once. My first novel is with its first agent, being considered. It's only been out there three weeks. Good luck with yours, I'm keen to know how it goes for you!